Counties, governor seeking block grants for county services
Washington County's Courthouse Square office building
Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi was among 20 county commissioners who stood this week with Gov. Tom Corbett in Harrisburg, where the governor called on the state Legislature to expand the Human Services Block Grant program, which provides flexibility in human services funding to meet local needs.
Washington County attempted to be a pilot county for the revised method of allocating money for human services in the 2012-13 Pennsylvania fiscal year, which began July 1. Washington was not chosen, but Allegheny, Beaver and Greene were.
“I am once again urging that we give all counties the opportunity to participate in the block grant program if they choose,” Corbett said.
The term “human services” may not mean much to those outside county government, but it covers many programs, from state taxpayers’ money for food banks to foster parenting to running senior citizen centers and contracting with facilities to house juvenile offenders.
Karen Bennett, director of human services for Greene County, said the flexibility of the block grant program was a lifesaver for several of the county’s programs. “If we could not have moved money from one program to another, we would have run out of money for housing in February,” she said.
Bennett is soliciting support from members of the state Senate to support the block grant expansion. In a letter to Sen. Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland, Bennett said, “I was very excited about the block grant and the flexibility it could bring us, not only fiscally but programmatically. Due to short time constraints in preparation of the block grant, we decided to take small steps in this first submission and use this year as a planning year for the future.
“In January 2013, we established a housing continuum of many services for homeless, near homeless and low income persons. From Jan. 2 to March 31, 323 people walked in our doors requesting some kind of housing services that included rental assistance, utility assistance, money for fuel oil and firewood. We were able to assist 186 of those people because they met the eligibility for our services.
“It was still cold in March and April, and we could not, would not, turn seniors, homeless, near homeless and people with disabilities away in the cold. So I looked at my block grant monies. I saw that we were pretty much funded for the activities in my CYS special grants truancy program with the 80 percent block grant allocation. I couldn’t really hire another person or fill any other need in that program with the 20 percent left over. So with the flexibility of the block grant, I was able to move that money to the HAP program, where I desperately needed it, and that money will cover my needs in that program until early June. Without the block grant, I am not sure that I can say that these individuals and families would have been safe,” she said.
In her letter to Vance, Bennett stressed that she needed that ability to make a local decision of what that money could be best used for to address the needs of the people of Greene County and urged her to support the expansion of the block grant to other counties.
Tim Kimmel, Washington County human services director, last month in addressing the Mental Health Association of Washington County, said, “Our human services system is very complex and difficult to maneuver.” Those who need help with a multitude of problems “often have to go through many doors and tell their story to many people. I think we can do better.”
Although people may talk to many caseworkers, the caseworkers may not communicate.
This, coupled with a decade of line-item cuts, midyear cuts and freezes, has placed counties in a jam, Kimmel said. Although some cuts have been restored, counties, like many businesses, are in the position of having to do more with less.
“I contend that we have reached the saturation point,” Kimmel said, but noted, “We can’t serve today’s consumers with yesterday’s delivery systems.”
He asked taxpayers not to confuse human services with the public welfare system, the federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Block grant funding for human services gives counties the flexibility to allocate and redirect funding where it is needed most. Traditional funding streams mandated how much money was spent on each program, resulting in what Corbett called “an inefficient, one-size-fits-all system.”
Maggi attended at the behest of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
“In the pilot program, participating counties have used flexibility to provide services by shifting dollars from underused areas and making funding decisions based on the needs of the families and individuals who come to the county seeking help,” said Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach, CCAP president.
“In several cases, pilot counties report their ability to eliminate waiting lists for some services for the first time in a decade.”
Both Kimmel and Corbett used the term “silo” to describe segregating each component of aid for an individual or family in need.
“Families and individuals do not exist in a silo, and neither should the funding that is designated to support them,” Corbett said. “By expanding the Human Services Block Grant program, we will continue to empower our counties to meet the needs of their citizens.”
“The block grant should be available in any county that wants it, making it possible for our citizens to get the help they need when they need it,” Leinbach added.
“It’s a funding mechanism, not a program strategy,” Kimmel said. Washington County receives a little more than $10 million for human services each year.
Greene County Bureau Chief Jon Stevens contributed to this story.