Agencies have little room left for cutting

October 07, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Cutting 3 to 5 percent from multimillion-dollar budgets may seem like a simple task to people trying to stretch a paycheck to the end of the month.

But, for the state departments that provide most of Maryland's human services, the reality of federal regulations and the threat of lawsuits gave agency heads little room to maneuver in cutting their budgets.

The decisions made over the past two months within the Departments of Human Resources and Juvenile Services would have confounded Solomon. Cut programs or fire employees? Hurt children or hurt adults?

Both agencies had to tread carefully. At DHR, cuts to federal programs or mandated services, such as food stamps, could have resulted in federal fines that would have wiped out any savings realized. DJS is constantly vulnerable to lawsuits if it stints in its care of juvenile delinquents.

Ultimately, DHR opted for some small cuts and one deep one -- the elimination of general public assistance payments to single adults. DJS chose to lay off 43 employees and shut down several programs.

"It's like a sinking ship and there are only so many lifeboats," said Helen Szablya, a DHR spokeswoman. "And in this culture, we've always accepted it's women and children first into the lifeboats."

Said Mary Ann Saar, who has been DJS secretary for less than a month: "Because of last year's cost containment, we now have nothing left to cut that doesn't hurt a lot."

Advocates for the poor have calculated that almost half of the state's $450 million shortfall was made up in human services cuts. These two departments combined accounted for more than $60 million: $2.8 million from DJS' $90 million budget, $50 million from DHR's $900 million appropriation.

Saar and Elizabeth Bobo, deputy secretary of DHR, said agencies had been working on the cuts since Aug. 5, when a letter from the Governor's Office on Budget & Fiscal Planning informed them of a $350 million shortfall. By the second week in September, it had grown another $100 million.

The directives were simple, said Saar. "They said: 'Here is your dollar figure. You do whatever you have to do to meet that dollar figure. But whatever you do, do carefully.'

"Other than that, it was in our laps. Sometimes, you'd rather it be the other way."

At Bobo's agency, the decisions were scrutinized by budget officials almost daily and often challenged.

For example, the $800,000 cut from rape crisis centers seemed devastating to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who had commuted the sentences of several battered women earlier this year, Bobo said. Still, that cut stayed.

Once each agency's list was finalized, there was no turning back.

"Most of the secretaries almost didn't believe until the last

second we would really, really, really have to do it. There were no white knights. In reality, there never were," Saar said.

Perhaps the most painful reality facing these agencies, however, is the realization that the cuts may not be over. There are indications that expenditures may continue outpacing revenues.

At DHR, Bobo said, the agency already has pinpointed what it has not cut: homeless services, day care, respite services, jobs. Each of those areas is vulnerable, she said.

Saar said, "If I talk about the areas in which we are considering cuts, no one will hear that word -- 'considering.' I don't want people working under that cloud."

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