The county commissioners normally meet twice weekly — a work session on Tuesday mornings at 10:00 a.m. and the regular session at the same time on Thursday. The work session is designed to discuss and review agenda items that would be voted on in the regular session. Because of this, it is more informal in nature, although the discussions between the department heads who present their requests to the commissioners for approval can sometimes be quite intense. The vast majority of the time, however, it is the same old, same old — “Good morning, commissioners, I am requesting today… it is in the budget… yes, we have explored different vendors (practices, equipment, etc.) and my staff and I agree that this is the best option (vendor, purchase, etc.) for us…”
Such was the normal give and take between Mya Toon, Lycoming County’s Chief Procurement Officer, who was asking to “award contract for EIP to PFM contingent upon EIP grant award.” The mind blurs in the barrage of abbreviations, but the commissioners appeared quite excited about this line item. Commissioner Jack McKernan, in fact, was leaning toward a break in protocol and voting immediately on it. Commissioner Rick Mirabito, still obviously suffering from a bout with the flu that kept him away the past week, came alive and sat straight up in his chair and remarked, “I believe this is the most exciting thing we have worked on as a commissioner board.”
So why exactly did the commissioners respond to the idea of, “Awarding contract for EIP to PFM contingent upon EIP grant award” like it was a trip to Disney World? EIP stands for a program out of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) known as the Early Intervention Program. Like it sounds, it was originally set up to assist local municipalities experiencing financial difficulties, but has since been used by some of the healthiest counties in the state to improve their management, operational, and financial practices. What it does is provide matching grant funds to assist municipalities to develop comprehensive multi-year financial plans and establish short and long-term financial objectives.
What is so exciting about that? Well, it starts with the process itself. An outside firm of consultants needs to be hired to do the study. This is the “PFM” part of the line item on the agenda. It stands for the consulting company PFM, the nation’s leading financial advisory firm for local and state government. They consist of asset managers, financial advisors, and consultant partners who come in and review the government’s operations from top to bottom.
PFM would bring in their team and begin by conducting a financial condition assessment. They will look at everything like fund balances, expenditures and revenues, not just currently but also a multi-year trend analysis of historic financial data. From this, they would then do a financial trend forecast, looking at future revenue, expenditures, economic, and demographic trends. Simply put, PFM would first look backward to see why the county is in the financial condition it is in, and then look forward and project what shape the county will probably be in the next three to five years.
But PFM are not simply bean counters. They would interview all the departments and look at personnel and data from these departments and see what the needs are, and what they are not getting, what current technology is being used, and what the projected technology needs might be. The PFM experts might identify areas where cost savings may come from, such as better tools available in the marketplace, or where better management practices could be developed. This is a comprehensive study, involving all departments and row offices, which would include Children and Youth as well as the courts. To that end, PFM uses as their consulting partner the law firm of McNees, Wallace, and Nurick LLC., recognized as one of the best law firms in the country by “US News & World Report” rankings.
So what comes out of all this? Quite simply, a complete picture of a better way of doing things at all levels in county government — both financially and operationally. A priority listing will be developed, so that instead of the typical reactionary “tyranny of the urgent” response to issues, there will be a proactive approach aligned with best practices. It will help the county better prepare for any possible negative hazards or risks on the horizon. It will assist the commissioners in developing a five-year financial plan, which will benefit everyone in the county, from local townships and boroughs, right down to the individual taxpayer. In the end, it should give every resident in Lycoming County more confidence in their county government. With this plan under their belt, the commissioners would really and truly be doing the best they could be doing. And getting all this for a net cost of around $16,500 a year for the next five years — it is no wonder the commissioners are so excited about it.