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County Manager Announces Human Services Cuts

Supportive housing program and number of mental health counselors to be scaled back.

To compensate for the loss of $7.5 million in state and federal reimbursement funding, the Arlington County Manager intends to reduce the scope of the county's supportive housing services and make significant cuts in 40 other mental health and preventive care programs.

To make up for the abrupt elimination in human services funding — which was suspended this summer following an agreement between Virginia and the federal government — the county will decrease the number of substance abuse, employment and mental health counselors.

County Manger Ron Carlee has decided to temporarily end a new program for adults with mental disabilities at Walter Reed Community Center. Plans to construct the Oak Springs assistant living center, which was to utilize a $4.8 million federal grant and house 52 low-income seniors, have also been shelved for now.

TO ENSURE THE county retains a balanced budget, County Manager Ron Carlee is implementing a hiring freeze and eliminating 30 jobs in the Department of Human Services, though most employees will be offered other positions within the division.

County officials emphasized that they are scaling back prevention and intervention programs, typically by reducing the number of employees, and not eliminating any services.

"Our goal is to preserve the most crucial direct client services, and for the most part we have done that," said Marsha Allgeier, a deputy county manager.

"We have been able to preserve our social safety net," she added.

A decision of whether to cut a number of youth and outreach managers will be deferred until February, when the county begins to assemble its 2008 fiscal budget.

Having fewer counselors will likely increase the waiting periods for those who need help and may affect the overall degree of assistance, officials said.

"Over time this will impact our ability to meet service levels," Allgeier said.

The greatest hit will be to the county's supportive housing program, which officials hoped would substantially decrease Arlington's homeless population. County officials admit now there will be no way to reach their stated goal of developing 400 housing units over the next five years for people with serious mental illness, mental retardation or physical disabilities.

"Newer initiatives were the most at-risk, and its just so costly to buy [the units] and provide the tailored support packages," said County Board member Barbara Favola.

Mental health advocates said they were disappointed that some of the county's most vulnerable residents will lose services vital to their mental and physical health.

"This is a huge crisis," said Sharon Davis, the citizen chair of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, which will lose funding for a counselor under the county manager’s proposal. "We have funds cut for programs that have been building for years."

FOLLOWING AN AUDIT earlier this year, the federal government and the state of Virginia agreed to suspend reimbursements for preventive health services programs in Arlington and Fairfax counties. Since 2002, Arlington has received more than $23 million in reimbursement money.

County officials were vexed by the timing of the decision, which occurred right after they had adopted the 2007 fiscal budget. Therefore, Carlee needed to strip $5.5 million from the $114 million human services budget and cut an additional $2 million in one-time expenditures.

The county manager’s decision to cover the funding gap by just reducing human services, rather than spreading the cuts among a number of county agencies, has been controversial. Allgeier, the deputy county manager, said it was a "long-standing" policy not to reallocate money from other departments when grants expire.

"It's extremely difficult to take money from another source in the middle of the year," Allgeier said.

Mental health workers and advocates decried the fact that services were being shrunk without any money siphoned off from other county programs.

"I'm disappointed there was virtually no attempt to look countywide to find ways to minimize the cuts," said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board. "To get all of it from [the Department of Human Services] seems to be a little mean-spirited."

Others challenged Carlee's assertion that the federal reimbursements were commensurate with other types of grants. Davis argued that other county departments should chip in because they have saved money over the past four years by having the federal government pay for many of Arlington's human services needs.

OFFICIALS ARE exploring several options for restoring the funding. County Board member Favola said she is "very hopeful" that the county can allocate carry-over money from the fiscal 2006 budget to help alleviate the cuts. The County Board should receive those figures later this fall.

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.

Members of the Arlington Virginia General Assembly delegation have met with the governor to discuss the matter, and County Board members will be speaking again this week with Reps. James P. Moran (D-8) and Tom M. Davis III (R-11)

"We are working very hard to get the dollars we already spent and to get the federal dollars flowing again," Favola added.

Yet even if the local reimbursement plan is reinstated, some services cuts will remain, officials insisted.

"There's a very low probability we will get a stream of money equal to what we got before," Allgeier said.