The annual National Association of Counties (NACo) conference was held in Portland, Oregon, last week. The cool, sometimes rainy weather of the Pacific Northwest was in marked contrast to the record-breaking heat in this region. Many NACo delegates expressed relief that they were not in their home states, which were suffering in 100 degree-plus temperatures. July is usually fairly dry in Oregon, but the television forecaster touted an almost-record when nearly half an inch of gentle rain fell in a 24 hour period. I wondered what he would have said about our Virginia thunderstorms, which can generate that much, or more, in an hour!
This year’s NACo conference was an opportunity, once again, for a few thousand local elected officials from across the country to work on issues that unite all counties – infrastructure, human services, funding, energy, etc. NACo conferences provide local officials with a better understanding of governance challenges from all perspectives: urban, suburban, rural, North, South, East, and West. We all learn so much from each other. For instance, western state officials worry about declining PILT dollars. With so much western acreage owned by the federal government, which does not pay real estate taxes, local governments rely on Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds, federal formula dollars that provide revenue for programs underwritten elsewhere by local real property taxes. When PILT payments are reduced, local governments have few other revenue options.
On the other hand, some new sources of revenue are creating a different kind of challenge for local governments. A North Dakota recorder told me that oil drilling in her state is resulting in rapid growth, housing shortages, and an unexpected boom economy. The amount of activity in her office has increased ten-fold from a few short years ago, just from oil and gas leases. At the same discussion, officials from Louisiana lamented the drop in oil and mineral profits for their jurisdictions as a result of last year’s Gulf oil spill.
In a session about the “New Normal” for public employees, a speaker from Wisconsin outlined the mood following draconian changes there this winter. She likened the situation to a professional football team, with a new playbook and new players, but without much of a result yet. The promised rejuvenation hasn’t happened, she said, but there seems to be a genuine willingness to alter the current process of local government. Another speaker warned, however, that overall cost savings may not be realized, even as employees are demoted or fired.
As vice-chairman of NACo’s Environment, Energy, and Land Use Steering Committee, I also participated in a fascinating tour of SolarWorld in nearby Hillsboro, Oregon. SolarWorld manufactures solar panels, producing large silicon “crystals” in a chemical process similar to making candles. The 200 pound cooled crystals, which resemble large silver torpedoes, are sliced into micron-thin wafers. Thousands of wafers are converted into electrified cells, which are strung together to create the familiar solar panels seen on rooftops. According to SolarWorld, their panels can create electricity “anywhere there’s sky.”
Next week, I’ll comment on Portland’s impressive TriMet MAX Light Rail system, public art, green buildings, and what I learned about their services for homeless persons.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org