Officials Seek to Restore Human Service Funding

Officials Seek to Restore Human Service Funding

Board members hope to sway state and federal officials to agree to end suspension of reimbursements for vital programs.

Arlington officials have launched an intensive lobbying campaign to retain up to $16 million in federal funding for foster care and other human services that is scheduled to be suspended following an agreement between the federal government and Virginia.

County Board members met Tuesday with Reps. James P. Moran (D-8) and Tom M. Davis III (R-11), and have been reaching out to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and other state officials, in hopes of finding a way to preserve reimbursements for money spent on prevention programs for troubled and at-risk youth.

"We’re looking at any place that might have funding," said Pat Carroll, Arlington’s legislative liaison to the Virginia General Assembly. "We’re trying not to leave any stones unturned."

Arlington faces a $5.5 million cut in its social services budget, a loss of 30 county jobs and a forfeiture of $10.4 million in federal reimbursements that would go toward job-training programs and assistance for the elderly, officials said.

Although the county has yet to determine what programs would lose funding, candidates include a senior center for the mentally ill and supportive housing for the homeless, said Marsha Allgeier, a deputy county manager.

County officials and mental health advocates said they are shocked by the scope of the cuts and their sudden nature. The abrupt elimination of federal funding could mean dozens of the county’s most vulnerable residents lose services vital to their mental and physical health.

"This is the biggest challenge we have ever faced," said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board. "People who are getting served today won’t get served tomorrow."

AN AUDIT, released at the end of May, found that the state of Virginia had given localities permission to use federal funds for foster care programs that went beyond the more rigid federal guidelines.

In 1998, the state urged Arlington to aggressively seek federal reimbursements for foster care programs. The county used those funds, at the state’s behest, on counseling and mentoring services that would keep youth out of jail or foster care, officials said.

The county used the funds the way they were intended, but the federal government adopted stricter definitions of what constituted prevention services, said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

"We followed the rules as they were set before us," Zimmerman said.

"These people and agencies should not be hurt by what is essentially a dispute between the federal government and state over interpretation" of foster care programs, he added.

While Arlington was held harmless for the violations of federal guidelines, an agreement between the state and federal government meant the loss of foster care funding and the suspension of reimbursement for other human services.

The agreement jeopardizes the county’s goal of establishing 400 supportive housing units for the homeless and mentally ill. Construction of the Oak Springs assistant living center, which was to house disabled senior citizens, is also now at-risk, officials said.

COUNTY OFFICIALS expressed frustration with the state for the timing of the decision, after the county adopted its fiscal year 2007 budget and just before the General Assembly voted on the state budget.

State delegates and senators "could have gone and asked for the $5 million from the budget conferees," Carroll, the legislative liaison said. "In the scheme of things $5 million isn’t a lot to the state— it’s a rounding error."

County Board members and Arlington’s delegation to the General Assembly are now in fervent negotiations with the governor’s office and state social services department about phasing in the funding loss rather than eliminating the $15 million all at once.

"We are hoping that we may get the state to live up to its obligation, and minimize the cuts and spread it over a period of time," County Board member Barbara Favola said.

Mental health advocates and county officials are also directing their attention to the federal government, hoping they will lift the suspension of reimbursements or reconsider the definition of prevention services for youth.

"We are going to take some lumps, but the question is how deep and draconian will they be," said Hope, the CSB chair.

In a phone interview before his meeting with Favola and Zimmerman, Rep. Moran called the loss of funding "a very serious situation." He discounted the possibility of including the money in an appropriations bill, but said he will discuss the matter with managers of the federal Health and Human Services Department.

"Hopefully they might see a way to reimburse [Arlington] for what is already budgeted, because the money was properly spent," Moran said.