'Downsizing' Hurts

December 21, 1990

Maryland's 22 youth service bureaus are bracing for devastating news in the weeks ahead: Most of them will be forced to close because of cuts in state funding, leaving thousands of troubled juveniles without any place to go for counseling and help. It is part of the state's plan to narrow its gaping budget deficit. But that explanation offers little solace to the youths and social workers who must bear the brunt of the service cutbacks.

Closing 13 of these bureaus will save $1 million this year and $2.5 million in the next fiscal year. The Department of Juvenile Services is running a $6 million deficit this year and had to find somewhere to make cuts. Since the youth bureaus are not mandated by law, they ended up on the chopping block.

Juvenile Services officials termed the move "painful" but unavoidable if the state is to balance its books without raising the sales tax or income tax. It illustrates the dilemma Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his cabinet secretaries face. Worthwhile programs, though they may be cost-effective and highly successful, have to be dismembered to save money. The pain this inflicts on those receiving the services is tragic; the potential problems this creates for society are even more troubling.

So far, Governor Schaefer has managed the state's "downsizing" with sensitivity -- more sensitivity, perhaps, than we showed in these columns by criticizing him for "too-hasty" responses that, in fact, we had advocated. He has rejected extreme options. And he has acceded to the wishes of state legislators that he find ways to balance the budget without firing state workers unless the economic situation worsens.

Still, Mr. Schaefer cannot avoid the kinds of heart-wrenching decisions that are symbolized by the youth bureau cutbacks. Since state legislators -- and apparently state voters -- are unwilling to raise taxes to make up the government's financial shortfall, agencies must shrink their spending by eliminating human services. Mr. Schaefer is giving voters exactly what they demanded in November. But he's trying to do so without devastating essential aspects of government or hurting those most in need of a helping hand.

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