A routine public hearing led to a larger discussion of human services funding at Wednesday morning's meeting of the Warren County Commissioners.
Forest-Warren Human Services Director Mary Kushner attended the meeting as part of the submission process for a state-mandated human services block grant.
Kushner explained that, while Warren County does not participate in the human services block grant program, which allows counties to receive state human services funding as a lump sum but with a cut in total funding received, it is required to submit a plan to the state concerning grant usage. Prior to plan submission, a public hearing is required.
"Even though we're a non-block grant county, we still have to submit a plan for '13-'14," Kushner said. "So by the time we submit our plan, we'll be six months into the plan year. This meeting, that is required for the plan, is to receive requests or needs from the community... it would be all the folks that are not covered under the waiver program."
Commissioner John Eggleston questioned the plan submission mandate, saying, "Even though we're not a block grant county... we have to submit a plan based on being a block grant county... Any idea how many person hours you're gonna have in putting this plan together that we can't ever use?"
"We'll be able to use what we submit for the needs-based plan through children and youth, so we'll be able to use that part of it," Kushner responded, noting they can use other human services department operational plans in the state-mandated plan. "So this is just duplication, I guess, and then we have to submit a budget also."
"We have been wrestling with this block grant thing for three years now," Commissioner John Bortz said. "We have really received, I wouldn't say, any real clear direction or benefit from the whole block grant issue. The genesis of this was originated by our governor, Tom Corbett, and his esteemed appointment of Mr. Gary Alexander to DPW (Department of Public Welfare) and Mr. Alexander was charged with finding, I think it was $400 million of fraud and waste within the DPW system. As many people know, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has underneath its category of welfare, one of the largest welfare government programs in the nation, so I'm sure he kind of thought there's just all kinds of ways he can just move in there and this block grant came out of an attempt to find part of that $400 million. They were trying to aim for efficiencies. Well, what we've found in government from time to time is there is a shotgun and a laser approach and this was a shotgun and a hatchet because there was really, in my mind, no clear idea or for that matter, any precision involved."
Kushner reported the state is looking at further state hospital system bed cuts, including some that could affect Warren State Hospital.
"We've had a lot of dialogue that we have nowhere to put people," Eggleston noted.
"What's happening when they cut on the community side is our folks end up going to jail," Kushner said, recounting a current patient situation. "That's part of our exercise going forward... what are our issues and what is our plan going forward. That's going to be part of my plan, too."
"As a society we need to really discuss that," Eggleston said. "Drug courts, mental health courts, our jail, I don't think very many of them are set up to be mental health facilities or drug and alcohol treatment facilities. It's a tough situation... We do what we can, but we're not really set up to be a mental health treatment facility."
Kushner also noted there are currently people waiting for a bed opening at the state hospital.
Judy Baker questioned the commissioners on how their decision to cut $90,000 in county matching funds for human services grants last year was different from state level cuts.
"Commissioner Bortz, when you made the statement about Secretary Alexander... and using the shotgun approach, well that's what you gentlemen did when you cut down on the match dollars that human services get," Baker said. "I would really... like to see you gentlemen put that money back into place. That's very important. We've got some real issues."
"Is there a specific program that you can see that would be more potentially beneficial at this time?" Bortz asked. "Something that's more critical?"
"I think it's across the board," Baker said. "Because your cut affected drug and alcohol. It affected anything involved with human service. So it's not just that you could pick one to put that money into. I really see that there's a need to have that money reinstated."
The cut to local matching funds, approximately $90,000, was for approximately $900,000 in grant money.
Kushner noted the reduction was absorbed over two fiscal years, but there is money human services will have to return to the state because it lacked a county match.
"The only thing I'll add is, we did ask Ms. Kushner if we could provide the mandatory services and she said yes," Commissioner Chairman Stephen Vanco said. "At that point, we have to decide, 'How much is the public going to fund outside what is mandated by the state?' We could fund millions of dollars more and the problem still not have a solution. I guess my whole concept is, maybe we need to realize what we have. We have parenting classes. That's where we need help. People need to learn how to live and how to associate with other people and how to raise their children properly so they have respect for society. But as far as funding, we could throw a couple million dollars in there to spend. But as long as we're providing the mandated services I don't know how much more we can afford."
"You know what, the thing of it is, you can pay now or you can pay later," Baker said, jokingly suggesting an alternative would be to add a mental health wing to the county jail to handle the increase of individuals flowing into criminal justice rather the human services. "I understand providing mandatory services."
"The reality is, the people of Pennsylvania have voted into office people who say, 'No more expansion of government. No more expansion of taxes. We're not going to increase the amount of money'," Eggleston said. "They've got control of the sales tax. They've got control of the income tax. Two very efficient taxes. We've got control of the property tax. A very inefficient tax and it hammers people who also are hurting and need relief. So to get money for additional programming, you need to convince people to vote differently in terms of what they need from government... This job would be easy for me if I just told everybody yes that came in here asking for something and then the people would accept me raising taxes every year... We all recognize that it's pay me now or pay me later, but try selling that to the taxpayers who are going to go out and vote."
"We work hard to find every dollar," Bortz added. "This is the kind of work that the commissioners do. We try to find every dollar. We've been characterized recently as being political and we're not doing that, we're trying to do our jobs. Taking a look at the checkbook and seeing what resources are available so we can try to fund programs like yours... You could say the commissioners are change agents. Everybody wants progress. Nobody wants change. Everybody want their programs out there, but nobody's willing to make the sacrifices necessary as a community... I can tell you right now, I hate that decision we made last year... Is it easy work? No. Is it work that we'll try to continue? Yes."