ANNAPOLIS – An already-gloomy fiscal situation for state social service agencies could get even bleaker, advocates say, since Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced that nearly all state agencies will face budget cuts next fiscal year.
“With a $700 million projected deficit, what we hear is that programs in the Department of Human Resources and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will feel a large portion of the cuts,” said Jan Schmidt, government relations director of Advocates for Children and Youth. “We anticipate that families and vulnerable families are going to be suffering the most.”
Ehrlich announced in November that public education and Medicaid would be the only state agencies to see increases in funding for fiscal year 2005 — all other agencies could take cuts to offset the deficit.
“Those (education and Medicaid) will be the only significant increases in budget,” said Neil Bergsman, executive director of the Department of Budget and Management. “We are looking at reductions in every area of state spending. . . . Everything is on the table.”
Budget cuts that social service agencies suffered last year have left advocates and legislators concerned that the promised cuts for the upcoming fiscal year will be even more painful for customers the agencies serve. State funding for the Department of Human Resources, which includes mainly social service programs, was cut by 2 percent over the summer, a reduction of about $11.7 million.
The department managed the cuts without laying off any employees, according to Norris West, the department’s communications director.
“The cuts that are being made now to any kind of social service will have a dramatic impact on them,” said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery. “Unfortunately the governor refuses to raise any taxes to cover their needs.”
Last year’s cuts left thousands of parents on the waiting list for child-care subsidies, and after-school programs are struggling with less than half of their original funding, Schmidt noted. Funding for the subsidy program was cut by 19 percent, from $134 million in fiscal year 2003 to $109 million.
Child welfare jobs that remain vacant because of a hiring freeze are also problematic, she said.
“We were pleased to see they added 50 positions (in Baltimore), but there are 500 positions that haven’t been filled in the child welfare arena, as well as positions in other arenas,” she said. “If these positions aren’t going to be filled, it will continue to be very difficult for caseworkers to serve families.”
Social services employees say that the hiring freeze compacted with tight budgets have strained their workloads.
“The majority of staff is reporting that they are handling double caseloads,” in all social services programs, said Donna Edwards, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 112, the social services employee union.
The problem is three-pronged, she said: “We have less available to provide customers, added to the fact that we have a lot more work to do and we have less staff to do that work.”
But social service agencies are not alone in struggling with budget cuts, according to Ruben.
“I’m not sure that any of the agencies can afford any cuts,” she said. “They’re bare bones at this point all over.”
Ehrlich’s budget is to be released by Jan. 21.