Many agencies provide valuable services for York County

We hope York County Council members will carefully consider the possible consequences before cutting back the county’s support for “direct assistance” programs. Any significant cuts could ultimately cost the county more in the long run while also creating hardship for some of the most vulnerable residents in the county.

Direct assistance programs aren’t run by the county. They are nonprofits or state-supported agencies that provide a variety of services to benefit residents.

The county has long supported a number of these agencies. While the county has reduced its contributions to some programs in recent years, the proposed 2015-16 budget includes money for several agencies that exceeds the required minimum in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 extra.

County Councilman Michael Johnson has focused on those payments as a possible way to save money next year. He argues that, in a year when the county is considering a tax increase and raises for county employees, the council should take another look at what it spends on these services.

He concedes that contributions can be justified if they reduce county spending elsewhere. But, he says, if it’s simply a donation to a worthy cause, that should not be a function of county government.

“Those needs should be handled by individuals, by churches and communities,” Johnson said. “But the government shouldn’t be doing it just because.”

On the surface, the argument is sound: Government shouldn’t be doling out taxpayer dollars to charities. Let taxpayers, themselves, decide which charities to support.

But, as Johnson notes, the services of many of these agencies replace services the county otherwise would have to pay to provide. And all the agencies do work that improves the overall quality of life in the county, something that is harder to measure in actual dollars.

Many of the benefits are obvious. For example, Keystone Substance Abuse Services receives the largest share of direct assistance from the county, $125,000, or $25,000 above the required minimum.

But Keystone, since the 1970s, also has served as the county’s designated drug-abuse program, as required by state law. If the county didn’t partner with Keystone, it would have to create a drug-abuse program of its own.

The work that Keystone does with patients suffering from substance abuse problems is more cost-efficient than a hospital stay. It also offers a lifeline to those who couldn’t otherwise afford treatment.

Those services, plus a variety of drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention programs sponsored by the agency, not only improve public health but also aid the efforts of local law enforcement agencies in reducing illegal drug use.

After Keystone, the largest donation goes to the York County Disabilities and Special Needs Board. It receives $108,050, or $21,000 over the minimum.

This agency provides assistance to more than 300 disabled people in York County. It helps clients with medical bills or other financial needs, and provides aid and backup to primary caregivers, many of whom are family members.

Case management, according to Mary Poole, the agency’s executive director, is “terribly underfunded” by the state. While she insists that the agency would not drop any clients if the county reduced its funding, it might have to freeze hiring and rely more heavily on private contributions.

Poole also would like to establish what she calls her “dream” project, a music and arts program for clients that she has developed with a former Winthrop University professor. Clients would be taught to paint and would sing in a choir with staffers and family members.

But Poole doubts that program would be possible if the county cuts its contributions.

Some might argue that providing detox programs for drug addicts or helping disabled residents learn to sing are not essential government services, such as law enforcement, issuing building permits or patching potholes. But, then, neither are parks, playgrounds, baseball fields, boat ramps and other public recreational facilities.

The county also helps promote regional tourism, runs fire safety programs and offers a summer feeding program so children in low-income families can continue to get healthy meals during long school vacations. None of those services necessarily are essential functions of government. But who could argue that they potentially improve the lives of thousands of residents?

We think the county is justified in scouring its budget for waste and redundancy. In fact, council members are obligated to do that.

But doing the minimum might not always be the most practical approach. The goal is not simply to balance the budget but also to help ensure that York County is a place where people want to live, work and raise their families.

In light of that, the contributions the county makes to these agencies is money well spent.

In summary

Even when services don’t strictly qualify as an essential function of county government, they often improve the lives of county residents.