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Human Services makes the cut

State aids that haven't increased in a decade and limits on county funding will apparently mean fewer services to Pierce County's mentally ill residents as well as the loss of almost six full-time county jobs.

Last week, the county's human services committee met for about three hours to give its approval to a series of budget request cuts intended to meet the finance and personnel committee's directive. That mandate was to prepare a 2007 budget relying on a 3.487 percent increase in property tax levy money.

"I do believe it's a realistic budget, and I think that the (department) stepped up in trying to be responsive to the funding it's being given by the state and feds," said Human Services Director Reggie Bicha Monday.

"I'm concerned that the state has not kept up its share of responsibility to care for our most vulnerable people," he said. He said the department and committee were literally left with deciding which vulnerable population they were going to serve and which they were not.

Besides, he said, "We're having to see some very talented people leave our organization."

The 2007 budget approved by the committee last week will rely on $1.9 million in county property tax revenues to help support a total budget of just under $10.5 million.

The department receives funding from 40 to 50 federal and state sources, some of them program specific, said Bicha.

If the state's basic allocation to the county had increased by two percent per year since 1996, Pierce County would be receiving $1.7 million from that fund alone, rather than the $1.4 million it will get in 2007, he said.

"Two percent is reasonable. It's not enough to keep up with the cost of living or inflation," said Bicha. "But we didn't even get that from the state."

He said the county's mental health and alcohol and drug abuse block grants haven't increased since 1996.

"In the meantime, the county has had to make up the difference with property tax dollars and revenue sharing dollars," said Bicha.

Because of unanticipated costs, the department overspent its 2005 budget by $406,400 and is looking at a possible 2006 deficit of nearly $500,000.

Much of those overruns are to pay for the care and treatment of juveniles who have committed serious crimes and have been sent by the court to state institutions or group homes.

Bicha said the department has been budgeting $120,000 for that the last few years, but increased the budgeted amount to $450,000 for 2007.

The money needed to pay for adults in institutions has also risen, he said.

Budget cuts approved last week include the elimination of seven positions, either through attrition or layoffs, and cutting contract services from a medical doctor and a psychologist.

The department will save over $105,000 in its mental health outpatient services by ending medical doctor services, ending its psychologist contract and eliminating one mental health therapist.

The Community Support Program, which helps persistently mentally ill persons remain in their homes, will cut its budget by $109,000. That means eliminating the clinical coordinator position, cutting a part-time nurse job and reducing psychiatrist hours.

The human services department will also lose its program management assistant, a management-level job; a long-term support social worker; a transportation aide; and one administrative assistant.

The approximately 200 persons, many of whom have developmental disabilities, who have been seen by the medical doctor will now be referred to community clinics, said Bicha.

Because the number of mental health therapists is being cut from three to two, persons seeking family or marriage counseling and who have health insurance will be encouraged to find other providers.

There are currently 24 persons in the Community Support Program, which serves persistently mentally ill clients. Bicha said the program will be able to serve only 13 to 18 of the most vulnerable.

Bicha also indicated that, because some of the county spending is matched by state funds, the department had to cut more than $319,000 to reduce its property tax levy by that amount.

"A dollar worth of services might only be funded 40 cents by the county and 60 cents by state and federal sources," he explained. "In order to save 40 cents, we had to give up that 60 cents."

The human services department budget, as well as all other county budgets, will go to the county board for adoption at its Nov. 14 meeting.