County officials from across the country gathered in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend for the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) annual conference. In addition to apprehension about how the new Administration will address county issues, the opioid crisis and mental health were topics of conversation and debate. Scheduled sessions for those items were standing room only, as county officials explored the challenges of providing services with reduced revenues and increased calls for assistance. That there are no easy answers was very apparent.
NACo has a robust committee structure, where dozens of county officials can serve on any of 10 policy committees. I was reappointed vice chairman of the Environment, Energy, and Land Use (EELU) Policy Steering Committee, and both the Resolutions Committee meeting on Friday morning, and our business meeting on Friday afternoon, reflected a broad diversity of thought. The committee supported a recommendation that county input be part of the development of a new rule regarding “Waters of the U.S.” legislation, or WOTUS, which was the subject of some Supreme Court decisions. EELU agreed that securing Section 404 permits from the Army Corps of Engineers takes too long, and supported legislative and regulatory efforts to shorten the process. Section 404 permits are required for nearly any water-related construction work, such as stream restoration; even repairing a trail across a stream in a local park can require a 404 permit. I opposed a resolution supporting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, but it passed by a vote of 28 to 14. In a spirit of collaboration, the sponsors of two proposed resolutions about the Paris Climate Accords – one in favor, the other opposed – met to rewrite their resolutions into one approach that supported asking the federal government to provide assistance and mechanisms for willing counties, cities, and states to partner with federal and international entities to benefit from the global transition to a low carbon economy. The blended resolution passed narrowly by a vote of 22 to 17, but was adopted at NACo’s business meeting on Monday without objection.
NACo’s ongoing focus on resilience, especially economic resilience, filled a full day of presentations and discussion on Sunday. Managing natural disasters, such as multiple tornadoes in Oklahoma and the value of pre-planning with private entities, as well as transportation infrastructure, like freight rail and Northern Virginia’s Express Lanes projects, drew attendees to the Resilient Counties Forum. I joined Adam Hesketh, Chief Financial Officer for Transurban, to discuss how that international company worked with the Commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County to increase road capacity with toll lanes, as well as the challenges of construction, sound walls, loss and restoration of landscape, and cut-through traffic in neighborhoods. Other topics at the forum included recycling systems – the Carton Council is working to ensure that more of their milk, juice, and wine box containers are recyclable – and solar energy. All of these topics have resonance in Fairfax County, and I was pleased to learn more about best practices across the country. The everyday work of government gets done at the local level, something that no local official should ever forget.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.