There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, and representatives of many of those jurisdictions gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, this month for the annual National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference and Exposition. The NACo Conference especially was well-attended this year, perhaps a tribute to its location in Music City, USA. Required attire seemed to be boots and blue jeans, especially with the Grand Ole Opry located right next door to the conference center.
Issues discussed at the conference were anything but musical. Again this year, counties nationwide are struggling with the effects of opioids and substance abuse. Harford County, in neighboring Maryland, uses the arts to raise awareness about addiction. Not a sound could be heard during their presentation to NACo’s Arts and Culture Commission about a locally written and produced high school play, “Addicted,” that demonstrated the sheer emotions, and terror, of addiction. The county’s office of Drug Control Policy used the play, as well as a HOPE Against Addiction calendar and art competition, to reach and educate more than 170,000 residents about the scourge of addiction. Harford County officials noted that using the arts has been an effective way to engage youth in the community, and an opportunity to discuss addiction without judgment. Harford County’s program won the NACo Best in Category Achievement award in the Arts and Culture category, and provides a template for other jurisdictions to emulate.
NACo’s legislative committees meet during the conference to consider proposed resolutions, about various topics, that are focused on federal legislation affecting counties. I serve as a vice chairman of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Steering Committee (EELU), which always has lively discussions among its varied members. In Nashville, the committee considered resolutions ranging from beach sand procurement and coral reef preservation in Florida, to groundwater, effluent limitations for the Chesapeake Bay states, and the impact of new water-borne chemical substances on human health and the environment. With members from all across the country, you can imagine the questions as Rocky Mountain members wrestle with sea level rise effects in coastal communities, and coastal jurisdictions struggle to understand the effects of drought on endangered species and forestlands.
During a roundtable discussion at EELU, a common issue, regardless of county location or size, was flooding. More frequent and more intense storms are factors in many counties, not just Fairfax, sometimes due to legacy issues of older, unregulated development, which can disrupt future economic development, too. One member noted the detrimental effects of stormwater on economically important shellfish beds in his jurisdiction. Renewable energy also was a highlight of the roundtable discussion. An Alaska borough representative said that increased oil prices are forcing her residents to go back to wood burners, negatively affecting local air quality. Vast solar arrays, too, are raising concern among some rural counties, since the renewable energy source often removes agricultural land from crop production.
Fairfax County is one of the largest counties, by population, in the nation, but many of our issues are shared by counties, large and small. Sharing best practices, and presenting new ideas that can work in other jurisdictions, are hallmarks of NACo membership, for Fairfax County and other counties that call the Commonwealth of Virginia “home.”
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]