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As budget impasse lingers, counties push back

It seemed like an inevitable display of frustration after days of mixed messages from Harrisburg on the fate of the long-overdue state budget.

It seemed like an inevitable display of frustration after days of mixed messages from Harrisburg on the fate of the long-overdue state budget.

On Wednesday morning, Delaware County officials called a news conference to announce that they might stop sending payments to the state - and use the cash to fund local human services programs already owed $40 million in overdue state aid.

"How can [the state] keep our state parks open, our liquor stores open," said County Council member Dave White, "and not fund services to our young victims of abuse and neglect?"

The complaint was the latest in a drumbeat getting louder across the state. A day earlier, Bucks County declared that it was halting its state payments. And a group representing county commissioners statewide is mulling a lawsuit to force the release of state funds regardless of whether a spending plan has been approved.

After watching their tentative agreement collapse multiple times over the month and then be revived, Gov. Wolf and the Republicans who control the legislature maintained Wednesday that a final deal was near. Still, the Capitol was quiet and it was unclear if negotiations had resumed or when they would.

Their talks, which they pledged could occur through the weekend, were expected to center on an expansion of the state sales tax to finance a boost in school funding, and possibly changes to pension and liquor sales systems.

Legislators were said to be moving away from a plan to raise the sales tax to finance a cut in property taxes.

Meanwhile, counties and local agencies were happy to fill the silence Wednesday.

"Harrisburg, in its entirety, has to understand the critical and significant impact that this has caused," said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

A growing number of schools, nonprofits, and agencies have had to limit services or rely on loans or credit to stay afloat without state funding. Some have warned they may have to shut their doors - even permanently - if the money doesn't start flowing again soon.

Hill said his agency was exploring a lawsuit to force the state to release money to county boards. The argument, Hill said, would be that local agencies provide services that are essential to government operations - the provision that allows many state employees and agencies to keep operating and get funding during government shutdowns.

"What we do is every bit as essential as any state service provider," Hill said, noting that many county services are mandated by the state. He said a suit could be filed as soon as next week, regardless of whether the governor and legislators have enacted a final budget for the current fiscal year.

"We've gotten to the point now where people almost accept the fact that a budget isn't going to be done on time" each year, Hill said. "Our real message is, this simply can't happen again."

In Delaware County, there were legal questions about whether officials were allowed to reallocate funds for the state toward local agencies.

Wolf's spokesman said the state cannot fund human services without a budget, and that Wolf has shown a willingness to compromise with legislators. "The governor can't negotiate with himself," said spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

Hill, of the commissioners association, said about a dozen counties have been forced to take out additional credit during the impasse, and "a significant majority" have taken preliminary steps to free up credit.

Jeff Haste, a Dauphin County commissioner, said Wednesday in an interview on WITF-FM in Harrisburg that he was frustrated by how little attention local governments have seemed to receive during the stalemate.

"There are very few folks in the administration and on the hill who truly understand the burden this puts on county governments," he said.