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York County budget woes may lead to cuts in services to the vulnerable

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson

Facing the possibility of a tax increase to cover budget needs next year, York County officials are looking to trim spending. But some agencies worry cutbacks could hit some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens.

County Councilman Michael Johnson has highlighted county funding to “direct assistance” programs as a possible chance to find savings when the county puts together its 2015-16 budget.

Direct assistance programs are not run by county departments. Instead, they are nonprofits and state-supported agencies that provide a range of assistance and services to those in need, whether it’s support for someone struggling with substance abuse, a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault, or those living with physical and mental disabilities. In return, the agencies receive at least some mandated local government funding.

But in the proposed budget being reviewed by the York County Council, many of these programs are set to receive more than the required minimum; an extra $5,000 to $25,000 more depending on the agency.

Johnson says local agencies may spend that money on valuable services, but in lean times, they may not be services the county should pay to support. The budget proposal includes a 2 percent increase in property taxes.

“At one point, the county started to phase out a lot of charitable giving, but that seems to have stalled,” Johnson said. “In a year where we’re looking at raising taxes and trying to give our staff raises ... I at least want to hear someone justify why we should keep this in.”

In Johnson’s estimation, contributions to “charitable” causes can be justified if they can be shown to reduce county spending somewhere else. If, for example, services to someone coming out of jail reduces recidivism, that would save the county the cost of locking that person up again.

“But if we’re doing it just to give to charity, then the government doesn’t need to do that. Those needs should be handled by individuals, by churches and communities,” Johnson said. “But the government shouldn’t be doing it just because.”

But the agencies involved say they do provide services the county couldn’t do without.

Safe Passage is a “domestic peace” program that uses its $20,000 budget line to fund a children’s advocacy center that assists law enforcement with children suspected of being victims of abuse or domestic violence situations.

“Our staff are trained to interview children in a child-friendly environment, and get them to disclose any abuse that might be going on,” said Jada Charley, Safe Passage’s executive director. “If we didn’t do it, the county would have to fund someone at the sheriff’s office to do it, and they also wouldn’t get the same wrap-around support services that we offer.”

Safe Passage’s budget line for 2016 is $5,000 more than the county is required to fund the agency, but still $5,000 less than what was requested.

Last year, the agency’s three trained staffers performed 208 “forensic interviews,” double the number from the year before, Charley said. Safe Passage also provides support for parents caring for abused children, services they would otherwise have to travel out of York County to find. Those services wouldn’t be possible without the county’s support, and funding cuts could impact the number of cases Safe Passage takes on and the amount of services it can provide.

“We don’t take in enough money to support this on our own,” Charley said.

Keystone Substance Abuse Services receives the largest share of direct assistance, $125,000, or $25,000 above the required minimum. While Keystone pre-dates county funding, it has received funding since the 1970s as York County’s designated drug-abuse program, as required by state law.

“In that way, we are a quasi-government service,” said executive director Janet Martini. “The county designated Keystone because otherwise a county agency would have to provide these services.”

The agency’s county funding all goes into Keystone’s in-patient detox center. The center provides rehabilitation services in a more cost-efficient way than a hospital stay could provide, Martini said, and public funding primarily helps those who would be unable to pay for the services otherwise.

Any reduction in funding will be “tremendously detrimental” to Keystone’s ability to serve the 452 people who checked into the detox center last year, Martini said.

Other agencies receiving direct assistance include the York County Council on Aging, which provides services to senior citizens ($88,750 in the 2016 budget, or $17,000 over the minimum) and the Clemson Extension Service for agricultural services ($34,076 in the budget, $6,800 above the minimum).

The largest agency after Keystone, the York County Disabilities and Special Needs Board, will take $108,050 next year, or $21,000 above the statutory minimum. If those numbers decrease, executive director Mary Poole said she is adamant it won’t affect the people who need the agency’s help.

“We don’t kick anybody out,” she said. “We’ll just have to find a way to do without.”

York County’s contribution pays for the disability and special needs board to host children’s programs and its case management system for disabled people living in the community. The board’s clients may be living independently or with family, but will require occasional assistance with medical bills or other financial difficulties, or their primary caregivers may reach out for backup or “respite time” – like a night at dinner by themselves.

Case management, which assists more than 300 people in York County, is already “terribly underfunded” by the state, Poole said. She said she would hate to see county funding reduced when the state DSN department just got funding restored to pre-recession levels this year.

With less funding, DSN likely will need to freeze hiring for some open positions, Poole said, and rely more heavily on its private fundraising arm, the York County Disabilities Foundation. But with more foundation money going to essential services, Poole doesn’t think she’ll have enough for her “dream” project – an arts program she’s developing with a former Winthrop professor.

“My dream is to have our folks learn music and art and dance, just junior high stuff, but things they never got an opportunity to enjoy,” she said. “It really helps with quality of life, with making lives better.”

If the art project is able to get off the ground, DSN clients will be singing in a choir with staffers and family members, and take part in an art show.

“They’ll learn how to use pastels, not just crayons,” Poole said.

No changes have yet been made to York County’s 2015-16 budget, which still has to pass a final reading by the county council before it goes into effect July 1.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the council chambers at the York County Agricultural Building, 6 S. Congress St., York.

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062

Direct Assistance Agency

York County Budget

Amount Above Minimum

Keystone

$125,000

$25,000

York County Board of Disabilities

$108,050

$21,000

York County Council on Aging

$88,750

$17,000

Cooperative Extension Service

$34,076

$6,800

Safe Passage

$20,000

$5,000

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