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Social Services director pleads with delegation for its support

December 20, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Washington County's Department of Social Services Director David Engle said Thursday the department's budget has been slashed by the state over the past two years, forcing the elimination of 25 positions since October 2001 and causing morale problems among employees.

As a result of those previous cuts, clients are receiving less personal attention from employees and being faced with longer waiting periods for service from the department, he said.

Those cuts came at a time the department faced increased caseloads, mainly child welfare and foster care cases, he said.

"Our customers need people to spend time with them ... and we just don't have enough time to do that," Engle said in a phone interview. "We have fewer people to do the work."

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Earlier in the day, Engle urged members of the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly for support in the upcoming fiscal year, saying the department is struggling to provide the level of services necessary to best serve county citizens.

"I am absolutely fearful that there's going to be a tragedy in Maryland, and I hope it's not in Washington County," Engle told the delegation. "We're really going to do the job the best we can, but we're really stressed. We're really spread thin."

Delegation members met with Engle and several other organizations at Hagerstown Community College's Career Programs building.

Erlene Wilson, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the parent agency of local Departments of Social Services, denied in a phone interview Thursday afternoon that official state cuts had been made previously.

Wilson said she wanted to speak with Engle before she commented further. She could not be reached at her office or cell phone Thursday night.

The Department of Social Services provides temporary cash assistance, food stamps and medical assistance to those in need. It also promotes self-reliance and protects vulnerable children and adults from such things as abuse or neglect.

In fiscal year 2002, the Washington County Department of Social Services approved nearly 11,000 applications for various assistance programs, including temporary cash assistance, according to the department's 2002 Annual Report. The local Social Services department budget was about $45 million.

Engle said 18.5 full-time positions - also known as merit positions - and seven contractual positions have already been eliminated as a result of state cutbacks over the past two years.

Those cutbacks amounted to 25 percent of the department's budget. The lost positions represent 7 percent of the department's workforce.

The number of employees in Washington County has dropped from more than 260 to about 240 as a result, he said.

The eliminated positions include social workers, child support workers, support staff and eligibility specialists, he said.

The jobs were eliminated when they were vacated by employees who left the department.

"We simply are not able to fill the resulting vacancies," Engle said.

Cuts were not made to programs provided by the department, Engle said.

The Department of Social Services' supplies budget has also been cut by 75 percent, and employees have been told to bring in their own pens and other writing supplies, Engle said.

They have also been making two-sided photocopies to save paper, he said.

"We're really tightening our belts over here," Engle said. "I think that the cuts have really taken us down to the bare bones..."

Engle said he thinks the severe cuts that have already been made to the department may save it from future cuts.

In addition, Engle said the employees have not had raises in two years.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, told Engle to keep the delegation informed of how state matters are affecting the department.

But there were no guarantees the department would receive financial help from the state.

Munson and Sen. John Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said they are expecting the upcoming fiscal year to be the toughest year they've ever faced.

"I don't think either one of us could say we've ever seen it worse than this," Hafer said.

State officials have said they are anticipating a $1.8 billion shortfall for the 2004 fiscal year.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Thursday afternoon the financial woes of the department will pose problems for county residents if they continue over a long-term basis.

"We need to make sure that we look out for all citizens of all income levels in the county," Snook said.

Engle said the current financial conditions at the department are taking a toll on employees, who feel anxious and concerned about not being able to spend more time dealing with clients.

"They're doing the very best job possible under the circumstances," he said. "They're very conscientious people and they have a great empathy for our clients."

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