Representatives from Mobile and Baldwin counties met with National Association of Counties (NACo) President Sallie Clark Tuesday to discuss how federal policy can have local implications on critical issues like transportation, public safety and economic development.Clark, who has been a commissioner in El Paso County, Colorado, since 2008, was in Alabama to speak at the Association of County Commissions of Alabama’s (ACCA) annual conference, which is being held this week in Orange Beach.
Though there is no top-down policy that NACo can enforce on the 3,069 counties that make up its membership, the organization does provide a powerful lobbying tool that gives county commissioners a voice with elected officials at the federal level.
Clark said counties play a vital role in the safety and security of the country, as is exemplified in her mantra: “Stronger counties create a stronger America.”
“Each year counties nationwide invest $70 billion in the justice system, $70 billion in public health and $25 billion in economic development efforts,” Clark said. “In Alabama alone, counties own and maintain 61 percent of all public roads and 54 percent of bridges statewide.”
During a press conference with local officials, Clark focused on the importance of counties working together to affect policy and to share their best practices at the state level through ACCA and the federal level through NACo.
According to Clark, NACo has been urging congress to “fix” the Highway Trust Fund by reauthorizing the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” or MAP21. Just last month however, Congress failed to pass a long-term transportation funding bill before leaving Washington for a short recess.
Though a short-term extension was passed, NACo and others like U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have taken the position that a long-term fix is crucial to the country’s economic security. Coincidentally, Foxx will be in Mobile tomorrow at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne to discuss the proposed Interstate 10 bridge and other transportation priorities.
“Last month, Congress passed a three-month extension that provides additional funding for the highway users trust fund, but without long-term security of transportation funding it’s very difficult for counties to make major progress on our roads and bridges,” Clark said. “The Senate has passed a bill, but the House has not yet come to the table to provide that same continuity to move long-term funding forward.”
A long-term transportation plan will be necessary to shore up at the last the federal portion of funds needed for large infrastructure projects such as the long-awaited I-10 bridge project, which has been roughly estimated at around $1 billion.Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Clark said “locals cannot fund something at that level” and a project that size would “require support from the federal government.”
Commissioner Connie Hudson said Mobile County is no stranger to working outside of its own geographical area to affect policy and tackle large-scale projects. She said teamwork and taking a “regional approach” by partnering with surrounding counties is a “key ingredient” to the success Mobile has seen in diversifying its economy and attracting businesses to the area.
However, she did say that despite more than $500 million in road and bridge projects addressed through three decades of Mobile County’s Pay As You Go bonding program, the county still faces a “monumental task” when it comes to improving its transportation infrastructure – a task that includes addressing more than 300 miles of unpaved roads.
“An extremely important part of economic development is our ability to provide transportation infrastructure through building, upgrading and maintaining our roads and bridges,” Hudson said. “While we do understand the necessity and the importance of continuing our economic development efforts, we also know that the future growth of Mobile County is absolutely dependent on long-range planning and the availability of funding for our transportation infrastructure needs.”
Other than transportation, NACo has recently lobbied against a few other legislative efforts that Clark said could have negative effects on county governments across the country. According to Clark, the priorities of the organization are arrived at by a number of steering committees, several of which Alabama is represented on.
“Essentially, (counties) have their own platforms and resolutions vetted out through various committees,” Clark said. “Sometimes those are very spirited discussions depending on the issue at hand, but at the end of the day, the majority of the committee members agree on those resolutions and that becomes the policy platform.”
Once a steering committee passess a resolution, it moves through a NACo board and will eventually be voted on by all of NACo’s 3,069 member counties during its annual conferences.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Waters of U.S.” rule, which redefined what bodies of water are applicable to the Clean Water Act, is one recent federal policy NACo attempted to slow down. Clark said that’s because the EPA didn’t include “good county input” into the process when making the change.
Currently, Congress is revaulting the the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds — a change that has been discussed for some time but was actually laid out in President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion 2016 budget proposal in February.
As it stands today, interest earned from municipal bonds is tax free, which allows government entities to finance bonds at a lower interest rate. According to governing.com, the cost of borrowing money could double for cities, counties and states if municipal bonds’ tax-exempt status was repealed entirely.
“If that happens, it really balances the federal budget on the backs of local government,” Clark said. “School districts, utility companies as well as local governments and nonprofits would be greatly impacted.”
Clark said that one of the many reasons NACo is engaged in Washington, D.C. on a daily basis.