Counties Prepare For a Larger Role

MARION County, in northwest Oregon, has lofty goals: to reduce child abuse and unwanted second pregnancies among citizens.

To achieve those objectives and others, it launched a program two years ago called Healthy Start to give families and their newborn children a ''healthy start'' in life.

Under the program, when the first baby is born to a Marion County family, that family is eligible for in-home visits from a trained volunteer and other services to help parents become more competent and confident in caring for their children.

Healthy Start is one of a number of programs Marion County citizens have initiated to support families. The experiment has become a national model of the new role counties will likely have to play as Washington pushes more power to the state and local levels.

''This is about a shift of decisionmaking to communities,'' says Cathy Garland, director of the Commission on Children and Families in Marion County. ''This thing has taken off like wildfire here'' and in other counties in Oregon.

Congress, intent on balancing the budget by 2002, wants to slash billions of dollars from domestic programs, from welfare to Medicaid and fold hundreds of these aid programs into block grants for the states. That means states and counties would be forced to take on more responsibility to administer services with diminishing resources. Yet many local governments are already strapped for funds and unprepared for this role.

Healthy Start is a product of the Marion County government saying that it could better meet community needs if it collaborated with schools, churches, businesses, and volunteers. In Marion, eight of its 16 communities, which are defined by the county's schools, have identified their own goals for strengthening families.

Wanted: local innovation

''There's never been a period of life in this century where such change is happening,'' said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who spoke at the National Association of Counties (NACo) 60th Annual Conference in Atlanta this week.

''County officials encompass inner cities, rural areas, suburbs,'' Senator Lugar says. ''How do you put together viable organizations that provide very complex services?... We need to find innovative ways in which people are helped.''

For NACo, an organization whose membership includes about two-thirds of the nation's 3,045 counties, this is a crucial era for county government. The roster of speakers at this year's convention, including President Clinton and three presidential candidates, attests to its growing clout.

Many people, however, don't realize the importance of county government. ''We struggle with the 'invisibility' issue,'' says Randall Franke, who just ended his term as president of NACo. ''Yet we are the government that provides the services that touch people every day more than any other government.''

With change just on the horizon, the organization is trying to prepare members to become more reliant at the local level, says Larry Naake, executive director of NACo.

Cooperation is key

The initiatives in Oregon are good examples of what can be accomplished, adds Mr. Franke, who is a commissioner in Marion County, Ore.

The county is trying to serve as the catalyst in bringing together all the different resources or groups in communities to serve children and families. Working together like this ensures that services aren't being duplicated and the money spent can be used more efficiently.

''If we do our job better, we'll save more money,'' says Diane Walton, executive director of the Oregon Commission on Children and Families. One of the things this effort has done, she says, is to reinforce that communities can solve problems better than states.

But while Franke says he believes county government should have more control at the local level, he is concerned that the federal government is not creating the kind of partnership with its local counterparts that is needed.

''We agree we need to balance the budget. But it has to be done in a thoughtful way so Congress is not just dumping on counties with no money,'' he says.

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