County Administrators and Managers Lead Through COVID and Beyond
By Shaun Groden, Greene County Administrator, and
President of the New York State County Administrators and Managers Association
It's a little-known fact that when it comes to county governments in New York, there are three distinctly different forms of governance structure:
charter counties with an elected executive or appointed administrative official,
counties with an appointed administrator or manager, and
counties organized under county law operating under the administration of the county legislative body.
Most counties—33, in fact—operate with an appointed administrator or manager that manages the overall operations of their county governments. They oversee the day-to-day administration of the county and work closely with the county board chair, the standing committees of the county board, the members of the legislative body, and each county department to ensure coordination of county government.
While each county administrator or manager has unique responsibilities based on priorities of their legislative body and needs of their communities, we all have common concerns as well. As our counties approach the close of 2021 and plan for 2022, here are some of the issues that are at the top of our lists.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
Throughout the past year and a half our county administrators and managers have worked hard with our local health departments, emergency managers, mental health directors to protect our residents from the novel coronavirus. We worked with our department heads and county employees to ensure that critical programs and services continued to get delivered to the best of our ability through this time, even as the state reduced local aid by 20 percent through the pandemic.
We worked closely with our local health department to deploy testing sites, recruit and train contact tracers, and set up vaccination PODs.
American Rescue Plan
The last 18 months have stretched county resources thin. The days have been long and county administrators and managers worked with their elected leaders and departments to ensure essential services were provided to everyone in need. A major priority last year was to work with county elected leadership, state officials and our congressional delegation to ensure special federal COVID assistance was provided to help address direct county public health and safety needs. In addition, it was critically important to work to ensure these federal resources were available to rebuild our local economies as many small and even large businesses struggled to stay open during lockdowns and ongoing restrictions.
It took a full year of nonstop advocacy, but we prevailed in securing over $2 billion in direct aid to the counties through the American Rescue Plan.?County administrators and managers have been working diligently to ensure these one-time, but transformational federal funds are invested in the most effective way.
In most cases, county administrators and managers act as the budget officer of the county or provide direct oversight of the budget officer. This includes preparing the budget recommendations for county legislative or supervisor review, adoption and then implementing and managing the budget throughout the year.
Budget development requires direct coordination with many county departments to ascertain expected current year revenues and future projections. Property tax forms the core of many counties' revenue base, with sales tax rising in importance and size, as it is the key local revenue source that can help reduce pressure on property taxes.
This whole process repeats itself on the expenditure side as budget preparation and day-to-day management requires regular monitoring and partnership with county departments, the state, and even federal officials to ensure promised resources and assistance are delivered to the county.?
Local Infrastructure and Environment
Do you drive to work? Maybe you take mass transit? County administrators and managers oversee county highway or public works departments and their employees who work to maintain and periodically rebuild the roads and bridges you travel on in the county. We also make sure that our local airports are ready to provide commercial and general aviation services. Some of our counties also own, operate, and maintain their own mass transit systems and fleets, which we are now starting to transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles.
Health, Human Service, and Public Safety Administration
Unique to New York State, our administrators and managers have the responsibility of overseeing a complex set of state-mandated health and human service programs. This includes contributing billions of dollars in local revenue to fund the State's Medicaid Program. Counties are also responsible for providing child support, visitation, custody and paternity petitions; and helping families in need access emergency services, including housing, food stamps, day care and heating and cooling assistance. We also investigate domestic violence allegations and ensure the safe placement of at-risk children in appropriate foster care or supportive housing.
In recent years we have seen dramatic changes to our criminal justice system, with new state laws raising the age of criminal responsibility, eliminating bail in most cases, and coordinating reforms to policing in communities across the state. These new state laws have significantly increased the number of cases in our probation departments and reduced our jail population, impacting staffing and oversight in both of these areas of county government.
Within a county local health department, the environmental health unit is responsible for conducting health and safety inspections of swimming pools, summer camps, beaches, and other recreational venues. The environmental health units are also responsible for monitoring and testing the safety of community water supplies and testing for lead in homes of children identified as having potential exposure to lead poisoning.
Employee Supervision and Management
County administrators and managers work closely with department heads to oversee employee relations, including negotiating contracts with union bargaining units, and vetting health insurance coverage and various other benefit programs. Accordingly, the county administrator is in charge of the day-to-day supervision of hundreds if not thousands of county employees.
This mission was put to the test throughout the pandemic, as it was the county administrator or manager who needed to label and manage essential and non-essential employees, transitioning to remote work. While this was challenging considering the number of services that were necessary to continue, we all made it work by understanding our employment team, working with the unions, and finding the right balance of who and how employees could work from home and who needed to be in the field in the safest manner possible.
Intermunicipal Affairs and Shared Service Panels
County administrators and managers are often also the main point of contact for working with the cities, towns, and villages inside our counties' borders. Historically, counties have worked with our municipal partners to identify programs and services that we can more effectively provide together. County administrators were written into the State's County-Wide Shared Services law as the convener of our local government panels to facilitate the development of intergovernmental sharing programs and services, and now that that law has been extended, we will be continuing to lead this process for the next several years.
New York's counties are at a turning point. A persistent COVID pandemic that refuses to recede quietly, volatile county revenue streams and historic federal investment all present challenges and opportunities for local governments. As county administrators and managers, it will be up to us to ensure that as counties rebuild, they don't just return to normal, but return stronger, more innovative, and more efficient than before.