Under normal circumstances, the president of the National Association of Counties would travel frequently, visiting as many as three different states every month.
But the past year has been anything but normal for Gary Moore, only the second Kentuckian ever to serve as president of the organization that represents the interests of America’s 3,069 counties, boroughs, and parishes. The Boone County judge executive’s one-year term as president of the group known by the shorthand NaCo spanned not only a global pandemic but two presidential administrations.
“To represent counties from all 50 states has just been a tremendous opportunity,” says Moore, who became president of the organization last July.
COVID-related limits on travel and in-person meetings didn’t stop Moore, though. He says his information technology team converted his office into a makeshift studio so he could video conference with officials around the country.
“We added lighting, and sound, and backdrops, and made sure it was set up to be able to do recordings from my office but also do a lot of virtual meetings,” he says. “Some days I would have eight to 10 virtual meetings.”
Contact with the White House also comprised a significant part of Moore’s work as NaCo president. He says the Trump Administration regularly invited groups of county officials to Washington for meetings with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which coordinates federal activities with state, local, and tribal governments.
“Their outreach to counties across America was unprecedented,” says Moore. “No Republican or Democrat president had ever engaged with counties and I think cities as well at that level the Trump Administration did.”
Moore says that close working relationship has continued under the Biden Administration as officials implement pandemic recovery efforts under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Prioritizing Broadband Installation
Of the COVID relief coming from Washington, Moore says CARES Act money funneled through state governments, while a portion of ARPA funds will go directly to cities and counties.
“The government closest to the people, whether it be a county or a city, knows the needs of that community better than someone in Frankfort or someone in Washington,” Moore says. “So rather than seeing these one-size-fit-all kinds of approaches, we think this will be much more efficient and effective.”
While some counties may prioritize their ARPA dollars for small-business assistance or drinking or wastewater projects, Moore says Boone County will focus a sizable portion of its federal assistance to expanding broadband service. He says the pandemic confirmed how critical high-speed internet access is to modern life, especially for adults working from home, students doing non-traditional instruction, and anyone seeking telehealth care.
“People were forced to use technology that they might otherwise not have,” he says. “Now that they have, they like it.”
But the increased demand put pressure on existing internet services that provided inadequate upload and download speeds, according to Moore. He says access to high-speed broadband today has become what electrification projects were during the New Deal Era of the 1930s.
“It’s the basic necessity to being able to be connected with the outside world,” says Moore.
The $40 million project will take 1 gigabit internet service to more than 40,000 homes in Boone County. Moore says the project contracted to Cincinnati Bell is scheduled to be completed in two years, and will include a sliding fee scale to make the service affordable for all households as well as digital literacy outreach to help people learn how to use the technology.
Responding to the Opioid Crisis
Moore says the pandemic also changed the nature of the drug problem in Boone County, which is home to about 140,000 people, making it the state’s fourth largest county by population. With the closing of international borders, he says shipments of opioids decreased. While that was a welcome development, Moore says the drug trade simply shifted back to methamphetamine and other illicit substances that were still readily available.
“It highlights the fact that the problem is not a particular drug,” he says. “The problem is dependency and mental health.”
Boone County is part of a national lawsuit against opioid distributors, which Moore hopes will be settled by the end of this year. He says any settlement payment to Kentucky will be divided with half going to the state and half going to individual counties based on how much they’ve been impacted by opioid abuse.
Although there will be limits on how those funds can be spent, Moore says he already has an idea for how to allocate the money Boone County receives.
“One of the things that I would like to see is substance abuse programs in our county jail, especially when [inmates] are nearing release,” he says. “Basically, a seamless exist from the county jail to workforce [and] affordable housing.”
Without a job and a place to live, Moore says recidivism “goes through the roof.” But he also cautions that one legal settlement won’t reverse the county’s drug crisis.
“There’s money coming but it’s not enough to solve the whole problem unless we collaborate at the state and local level, and we do it wisely,” he says.
Moore says the state can help by funding regional marketing campaigns and educational programs in schools that address aspects of addiction prevention and recovery.