Lancaster Co. Human Relations Commission

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this issue.  My name is Nate Benefield, I am Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg. We are a nonprofit, independent public policy research and educational institute.  Our mission is to develop and advance public policy based on the nation’s founding principles of limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility. 

Our research primarily focuses on Pennsylvania state government and policy issues; we recently released a report advising state legislators to “prioritize spending, justify all $66 billion in state spending, and cut waste from state government.”  These same principles apply to county government. With a recession cutting into Pennsylvanians’ incomes, and reducing revenues for government, it is even more important to evaluate how every tax dollar is being spent.

In this regard, the County board should ask key questions about programs:

  • Is this a function of government?
  • Is this a function of county government?
  • What are the goals? How will these be measured? Is the program achieving these goals?
  • What would happen if this was left to the private sector?
  • Are these services being duplicated elsewhere?
  • If it is a function of government, could it be delivered more cost-effectively?

With these questions in mind, the $470,000 spent each year on the Lancaster County Human Relations Commission (LCHRC) should raise a number of red flags.

For starters, only five counties in Pennsylvania have a similar agency; sixty-two of the 67 counties in this state have no Human Relations Commissions.  One should quickly question if this is an appropriate area for the county to be involved in.

Indeed, the LCHRC performs the same duties as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (a $13 million operation). Lancaster County residents pay for the state agency with their taxes, but receive no reimbursement from the Commonwealth for the services provided at the county level.  Many of the same functions are also performed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and even the City of Lancaster’s Human Relations Commission.

Even if the LCHRC is deemed an appropriate function of the county, one would have to question its necessity in the wake of duplicate agencies at the federal, state, and municipal level.

Further, you should consider the efficacy of the LCHRC, at least as a government entity.  In 2009, an overwhelming majority of cases brought to the LCHRC were dismissed for lack of probable cause, a lack of jurisdiction, or were withdrawn. And while enforcement of anti-discrimination laws would certainly fall under the purview of government, the LCHRC engages in a slew of activities that could be considered mere window-dressing.

These activities include educational forums, community fairs, public relations activities, and broad discussions about “diversity.”  In their latest newsletter, for instance, the LCHRC featured articles like “Tips for Communicating with a Diverse Audience”-practical information, to be sure, but ideas which can be found at thousands of websites not funded by taxpayers.

The LCHRC holds a number of events for the recognition and appreciation of local police.  As citizens, I think we should all do a better job of thanking our law enforcement officers for the work they do to keep us safe and protect our property.  However, I do not think we need a government agency to remind us of that, and certainly not to do it for us.

Our friends at the ACLU of Pennsylvania issued a call to action writing, “Tell the Lancaster County Commissioners not to put a price tag on protecting the civil rights of its residents.”  This is well-intentioned, but a bit of hyperbole.  Do the 62 counties without a human relations commission not protect the civil rights of their residents?  Does Lancaster County have less instances of discrimination than other counties, due to the presence of the HRC; or far greater discrimination, making an HRC necessary? (I have not researched these questions, but I would guess there is little difference from the state averages).  If the county HRC were discontinued, would there be rampant abuse of civil rights-in spite of federal and state laws, not to mention powerful market incentives, enforcing equality of opportunity?

These points raise perhaps the key question in this debate-whether the LCHRC actually works to adjudicate cases of discrimination or to give the appearance of promoting diversity. 

Even if the Board sees fit to retain the LCHRC, they should reconsider the amount of funding it receives and what duties it performs.  Greater transparency would help inform this discussion.  The Commonwealth Foundation advocates that both state and local governments should put all of their spending online in a searchable web database-essentially a “checkbook registry.”  Seeing exactly how the LCHRC spends every dollar they receive would help taxpayers, citizens, and elected officials make a more informed decision about whether it truly is necessary.

I hope the Commissioners will seriously consider both the costs and the benefits of the LCHRC.  They may find that there is reason to continue this work, but I hope not to pay lip service to “promoting diversity,” but for the actual results and performance of the LCHRC’s work.

I thank you for the opportunity to present our thoughts, and look forward to any questions.