No-fee counselor under fire

December 05, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Source: Crofton Community Counselor Quarterly Reports, January-September 1993.Staff Writer

For years, Crofton's special tax district has paid for a psychological counselor whose services are free to residents, a unique program that has been controversial since the day it was born in 1972 as a simple plan to help wayward teens.

The position has grown into a full family-counseling service, but some residents argue that people living in Anne Arundel's fifth richest community can afford to pay to get help for their own psychological problems.

"I am not selfish or mean-spirited," said resident Anne Green, a vocal opponent of the counseling service. "I just happen to believe that government is running our lives. I don't think the tax district has any business in the counseling business."

The Crofton Civic Association has agreed to put the community counselor on the ballot as a referendum in May. Whether the results will be binding either on the 1994-1995 budget, which takes effect July 1, or when the council begins debate on its 1995-1996 budget package in October has yet to be decided.

The referendum agreement comes after a narrow victory for the position last month, when the board of directors failed to pass -- on a 5-5 vote -- an amendment to cut the counselor position from full time to part time.

A separate straw vote to get a consensus on Crofton's $53,000-a-year human services program, which includes a $30,000 salary for counselor Linda R. Smith, passed only when civic association President Edwin F. Dosek broke another 5-5 deadlock. The final vote on the entire budget could come tomorrow.

Crofton's proposed budget for the 1994-1995 budget year is $586,000. Under the current tax rate of 28 cents per $100 of assessed value, the counselor position costs Crofton households about $15 a year.

"I really don't think it's a hot issue in the community," Mr. Dosek said, blaming newspaper stories for creating controversy and ignoring such other angles as a community service award that Ms. Smith recently received from Crofton ministers.

"Many people seem to brag about it: 'I live in a community that has trees, a police force, iron gates, a nice colonial setting and has its own counselor.' " Mr. Dosek said.

The special tax district, which levies taxes to pay for a five-member police force and to maintain common grounds, has about 9,000 residents in its triangular community, bordered by routes 3, 424 and 450. In 1991, the median household income was nearly $65,000. That is predicted to rise to $87,000 by 1995.

Three years ago, some members of the board of directors tried to eliminate Ms. Smith's position and hire a private contractor, a move that met with a barrage of criticism from residents who picketed a board meeting and voted down the proposal in a referendum.

In that vote, 581 people voted in favor of keeping the service free, 382 wanted to eliminate the position and 81 opted for making people pay for counseling sessions.

Since then, board members have rejected giving Ms. Smith an 8.1 percent raise and have repeatedly discussed how many hours she spends at various duties.

Ms. Smith, who keeps her distance from the political fray, said she has no plans to resign.

"In 1989, I got a tremendous amount of support," Ms. Smith said. "Now, I see it as a development stage that Crofton will go in and out of every three or four years. I think it strengthens the position. It forces people to think about why the position is valuable."

L Ms. Smith avoids board meetings where her fate is discussed.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me" to lobby, she said. "The residents have to decide whether they want the position or not. I'm simply an employee who fills the position."

Ms. Smith, hired in 1986, said she was apprehensive about talking during an interview in her office at Town Hall. She wouldn't address specific statements from board members and

said she was sorry that some clients felt obligated to publicly acknowledge treatment in order to defend her.

She said she has helped a variety of people in Crofton, recalling a youth she started counseling in 1991 after he was caught breaking into five homes.

"He has not been arrested in two years," Ms. Smith said. "And his family really believes counseling is the reason. But for me to say that, isn't going to change anyone's opinion on the value of the service."

Ed Ganning, a recent addition to the 13-member board of directors, broached the idea of eliminating the position during last month's budget deliberations.

"I don't believe the town ought to be in the business of providing counseling services," he said in an interview. "The counselor is probably a good idea, but so would a day care center or an office for medical services or a town veterinarian. Where do you draw the line?"

Mr. Ganning points to statistics that show 2 percent of Crofton residents use the counseling service at any one time, arguing that is a poor way to spend 8 percent of the community's budget.

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