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County Manager Scales Back Human Services Cuts

Carlee recommends county use surplus funds to keep 10 counselors and specialists.

County Manager Ron Carlee announced plans last week to reinstate funding for several mental health counselors and preventive care positions that were scheduled to be eliminated due to the loss of state and federal funding.

Carlee has recommended that the County Board use $680,000 in left-over funds from last year's budget to pay for substance abuse therapists, youth employment counselors and other outreach specialists for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The county was forced in September to scale back its human services and supportive housing programs due to the loss of $7.5 million in state and federal funding.

An audit earlier this year of foster care programs found that the commonwealth of Virginia had given localities permission to use federal funds for human services initiatives that went beyond the more rigid federal guidelines. The federal government and Virginia then agreed to suspend reimbursements for preventive mental health programs to Arlington and Fairfax counties.

To make up for the abrupt loss of funding, the county has decided to implement a hiring freeze, temporarily end a new program for adults with mental disabilities at the Walter Reed Community Center and shelve plans to build an assisted living center for low-income seniors.

"The loss of [human services] revenue has necessitated tough decisions and resulted in painful service reductions," Carlee said.

The manager’s decision, unveiled during the Oct. 24 County Board meeting, means that ten human services specialists who were slated to lose their jobs later this fall will be able to continue working at least through July. When Carlee announced the initial cuts in September, he signaled that he was interested in maintaining some key positions through the end of the fiscal year so as not to interrupt ongoing programs.

"What we tried to do was identify the highest priority programs that we did not want to disrupt," said Susanne Eisner, director of the Department of Human Services.

The County Board will decide next spring the future of these positions, and other human services that have been reduced, as part of the process of crafting the 2008 fiscal budget. During their meeting last week board members implied they would seek to restore funding for the most crucial human services programs.

"Arlington has always stood by the value of preventive care and we recognize the enormous benefits from having it in place," County Board member Barbara Favola said.

Mental health advocates, many of whom personally suggested to Carlee what positions they thought were most vital to the county, applauded the manager's decision to use surplus budget funds to save the 10 staff positions.

"Given that we are facing this challenging time, he did the responsible thing in funding our most critical core needs," said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board.

Carlee's original move to cover the funding gap by just reducing human services, rather than spreading the cuts among a number of county agencies, was decried by mental health advocates. Carlee has partially mollified his critics by recommending the use of $680,000 in surplus funding.

"The hit is so large that we do need to share that pain across the larger organization," Carlee said.

But Susan Philp, chair of Arlington's commission on aging, said she was disappointed Carlee did not set aside the $358,000 needed to begin an adult day care program at Walter Reed Community Center.

More than 15 families are currently on the waiting list for the county's sole adult day care provider, Philp said. "This is a facility for which there is an immediate need," she added.

Due to the current funding gap, the county manager said it would "not be prudent" to start a new program at this time but added that the County Board can include funding for the Walter Reed initiative in next year's budget.

The county has had to put in abeyance plans to construct an assisted living facility for 52 low-income seniors at the Oak Springs center, which was to utilize a $4.8 million federal grant. Officials estimate it would cost the county $1 million for renovations and another $1 to $2 million per year to operate the facility.

Board member Favola said finding funding for the assisted living center would be one of her top priorities when fashioning next year's budget.

"Oak Springs will be a cutting edge, model program and I implore my colleagues to do everything we can to make sure it gets off the ground," Favola said.

Arlington officials have launched an aggressive lobbying campaign in hopes of getting back some of the $10.4 million that is owed to them in reimbursements. They have met with Gov. Timothy Kaine and Reps. James Moran (D-8) and Tom Davis (R-11) to discuss the matter.

"We have pulled out pretty much all the stops to make sure the governor is aware of the situation we are in," said Hope, chair of the Community Services Board. "I am pretty optimistic it will happen."