(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the SmartBrief's Blog here). The National Association of County Administrators held its latest Idea Exchange session during last month’s 104th ICMA Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md. This exchange covers critical issues in county government, including perspectives and successful initiatives across the 3,000+ counties in the U.S.
The Idea Exchange is an opportunity for county officials to discuss pressing issues in a friendly and informal setting. These discussions are usually held three times per year. This recent event included county officials’ ideas, concerns and questions about such areas as the opioids crisis, infrastructure, affordable housing and the threat of e-commerce to county tax bases.
The opioid crisis is a concern for officials at all levels of government as well as the private sector. County officials in this session noted how some counties are suing pharmaceutical companies over their alleged role in the crisis (one example is counties in California).
A few approaches to helping opioid users were mentioned, such as having police officers carry Narcan, which can reverse an overdose, as well as helping people in detention centers break free of their addictions.
Infrastructure is a key responsibility and concern for many counties, whether in maintenance or new buildouts. The high cost of steel was cited as a concern with new projects, while gas taxes, general funds and private toll roads were all part of discussions about finding money.
A newer wrinkle in the infrastructure discussion is the growth of e-commerce and its effect on shopping centers and other brick-and-mortar storefronts. Amazon and other online retailers are shifting business from people visiting stores to people awaiting deliveries, and the effect is being seen in commercial infrastructure. Reports suggest no new indoor malls have been built in the US for 12 years, while abandoned or deteriorating shopping centers pose a myriad of problems for counties.
How do counties compensate for the sales tax lost when malls close? That was just one of the questions raised by officials at the Idea Exchange.
Finally, another area of vibrant discussion was around affordable housing. County officials raised questions about how to get communities to care more about the issue. While people without homes are part of the affordable housing question, officials at the Idea Exchange also noted that the challenge extends beyond them. People on fixed incomes or people with low-paying jobs can also be squeezed without affordable housing.
Given some of the public perception of the words “affordable housing,” some officials asked whether referring to it by a different term would help -- reframing the topic as “housing diversity,” for instance.
There were also success stories shared, such as Salt Lake City’s adding of housing stock by buying up old motels and a housing community for the homeless in Olympia, Wash., that’s spurred additional efforts.
Another example was Pittsburgh's success in tying development projects to affordable housing. Not long before the ICMA conference, developers in Pittsburgh completed 36 affordable-housing units on what were vacant lots.
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