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Votes

Services for People In Need

Facing budget challenges confronting city’s most vulnerable residents.

For Debra Collins, helping the city’s poorest and most at-risk population is a personal calling and a professional obligation. As director of the city’s Department of Human Services, she has seen the human cost of inaction and indifference. And in the upcoming budget season, she plans to advocate for her department and the residents it serves.

“It may sound kind of corny, but I think there’s no higher calling than serving the public,” Collins said. “Human Services isn’t just about poverty. It’s about supplying basic needs to children, families and seniors.”

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Collins received a bachelor’s degree in English from Canisius College and a master’s degree in English from Buffalo State College. A former second deputy commissioner for the Department of Human Services in Erie County, N.Y., she has been director of the city’s Department of Human Services in Alexandria since 2003.

“We provide services to our most vulnerable residents,” Collins said. “And we’re in a budget environment where we are trying to maintain the current level of services when there’s uncertainty about federal funding.”

Every year, the department confronts the challenge of putting a budget together at a time when the federal budget has yet to be finalized. This year, for example, the city is unsure how much money the Bush administration and the Republican Congress might cut from programs that help the poor and disabled.

“Those kinds of programs seem to be on the block this year,” said Bruce Johnson, the city’s Office of Management and Budget. “So we’ve set aside about $1 million in case the grant money disappears.”

Johnson said that the $1 million has been placed in the city manager’s proposed “fund balance,” which will give the department access to it if the federal dollars dry up. Meanwhile, a host of other issues are facing the Department of Human Services. From cuts in temporary staff to the creation of a new before-and-after-school program, Collins has a busy budget season ahead.

HUMAN SERVICES HAS an office at 2525 Mount Vernon Ave. with 221 full-time employees and 6.8 part-time employees — with one new full-time position being added by the city manager’s proposed budget. The department’s proposed budget this year is $51 million, a $4-million increase over last year’s budget. About half of that comes from federal and state revenue sources, with the city’s proposed budget for the department at $23 million, an 8.1 percent increase over last year’s appropriation of $21 million.

“We are fighting to maintain current services,” Johnson said. “But it’s costing us more to do that.”

Several expenditure reductions were proposed by the department, including cutting $70,000 worth of temporary services, $9,000 in overestimated transportation costs and $4,000 from the Job Club, a skills-development program for students at the George Washington Middle School and the Hammond Middle School.

“We will be able to maintain our current level of services with these expenditure reductions,” Collins said. “Everyone has to do their part in this budget process.”

The city manager also proposed two additions to the department, totaling $164,437. These additions include a new coordinator for before-and-after-school childcare programs and transitional housing services for people trying to break the cycle of homelessness. Other suggestions made by the department that the city manager did not recommend include $30,000 for a prescription-assistance program, $24,000 in additional funding for the Mount Vernon Head Start Program and $5,000 for landscaping at the department’s headquarters on Mount Vernon Avenue.

FOR MANY YEARS, the city has wanted to create a consistent recreational service for students in the city’s public schools. Currently, only two elementary schools in Alexandria have licensed before-and-after-school recreation programs. A new coordinator position — which comes with a $101,187 price tag in the city manager’s proposed budget — would oversee the creation of licensed programs in all of the Alexandria’s elementary schools.

“We need a consistent program,” Collins said. “Ultimately, this will be a partnership between the city and the schools.”

If the new coordinator is approved in the final version of the budget, Collins hopes to pilot the program next year in two schools. Tentatively titled “Alex’s Kids,” the program would eventually need a curriculum specialist to design a program that would design program elements to incorporate Virginia’s Standards of Learning benchmarks.

“This is a multi-year process,” Collins said, adding that the coordinator would be a valuable new hire for the city. “We need someone who is on the ground working closely with the school system.”

Another new spending initiative in the department is a $63,250 appropriation to Community Lodgings, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1987 to improve the lives of homeless and low-income families living in Alexandria. The city manager’s budget says that the money would “meet an immediate short-term financial shortfall.”

“One of the biggest struggles we have is affordable housing,” Collins said. “This money will help provide a stepping stone for people to find permanent non-subsidized housing.”

THE DEPARTMENT FACES two potential cuts in the city manager’s “alternative budget” which would cut the city’s annual spending increase from 7 percent to 6 percent. Both of these potential cuts have been included in the menu of options for City Council members to choose from.

The first potential cut is a $150,000 appropriation to increase the salaries of Head Start teachers in Alexandria. For Budget Director Bruce Johnson, this item is emblematic of the kind of decisions that need to be made at City Hall every year during the budget process.

“Does the city want to spend money on its teachers or have a tax cut?” Johnson asked.

Collins described eliminating the pay raises for Head Start teachers as a particularly painful cut, one that she hopes City Council members will reject.

“We support the increased salaries,” she said. “These teachers are not getting their salary needs met, and it would have a negative impact on the children because it would affect the stability of their teachers.”

Another potential cut offered in the alternative budget would do away with a 4-percent increase toward three programs designed to funnel money to an array of nonprofit organizations. Under the city manager’s proposed budget, the Alexandria Fund for Human Services would receive $124,791 more than last year.

“That’s on the bubble,” said Johnson, adding that the proposed increases have been included for deletion under the city manager’s alternative budget.

Collins said that the fund was recently transferred from the Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Human Services, and the increase was designed to incorporate a growing number of nonprofit organizations that are willing to provide services to the city.

“Nonprofits know their clients,” she said. “The city can’t do everything, and we want to fund as many of these proposals as possible.”