New plan for social service grants runs into resistance from County Council

April 10, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Citizen Services Director Manus J. O'Donnell asked the County Council to endorse a policy change Friday, but got a rap on the knuckles instead.

Asking the Democratically controlled council to support changes favored by Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker is a dicey business at any time, but in an election year, it would seem to be a prescription for trouble.

On the surface, the request seemed simple enough. Mr. O'Donnell wanted the council to agree to changes in the way the county provides grants to social service agencies. If approved, the changes would take effect next year.

"We want the community more involved and [the proposed changes] will do that," Mr. O'Donnell said. The way things work now, Mr. O'Donnell told the council, is that a grants-in-aid committee reviews requests and makes funding recommendations based on what each agency has requested.

"It's frustrating," said Richard Kirchner, a member of the 22-person committee recommending the changes. "You're evaluating current grantees -- [those that are already getting money from county government and want it to continue] -- but you wonder about other groups. Are we getting the best use of government funds?"

Most council members, however, saw it as a new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. "Sounds to me like you've been giving too much aid and have designed an elaborate process" to weed some agencies out of the process, said Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a 3rd District Democrat.

To help assure that the county is, indeed, getting its money's worth, Mr. Kirchner and his committee have come up with a multilayered plan to monitor and evaluate social service agencies.

The plan calls for the creation of a "public responsibility committee" that would meet every three to five years to review the county's social service needs and recommend a means for meeting them.

Once the needs were determined, the grants-in-aid committee would take over, setting priorities and using subcommittees to monitor and evaluate the delivery of services.

Other than spreading the work among several committees, the major difference is that the present system focuses on agencies and the proposed system focuses on needs. The present system might provide funds to several agencies performing the same function. The new system would not. It would look at the function -- providing hot meals for the elderly, for example -- and provide funds to the agency deemed best able to accomplish that function.

"We should pay more attention to where the money is going and how it is used," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Future grants would be based not on who can tell the best story, but on who has the greatest need. It is a better management system and shows more involvement of the county with the providers of services."

"I am concerned that this is a strategy to decrease grants-in-aid; that's what it sounds like to me," said Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat.

"Definitely not!" Mr. O'Donnell responded. "It is quite the opposite. We rose from $200,000 to $2.5 million" in the amount the county gives annually to social service agencies. The plan is merely a new way to "more fully involve the community."

Ms. Pendergrass said the community is already involved. "I've listened" to the administration's proposal, she told Mr. O'Donnell. "What has more impact on me," she said, "are the names of the committee [members proposing the changes]. My concern is that they're not seeing what's really happening. I have grave misgivings that this will build bureaucracy and create a great amount of nervousness [among social service agencies]. I am surprised at the committee."

Councilman Darrel Drown said he, too, was concerned about adding layers of bureaucracy. "I start to worry abut the committee" membership, said the 2nd District Republican. The people who would serve on the new committee are people already involved -- "and their friends," Mr. Drown said.

Council Chairman Gray said one of his concerns is that the council may be "cut out of the loop" in the new process because it would be approving a lump sum for services rather than grants to individual agencies.

Mr. O'Donnell suggested that the council would be even more involved through committee briefings. Mr. Gray was unimpressed. "Why get informed about the needs if you can't do anything about it?" he said.

Councilman Paul R. Farragut, a 4th District Republican, said he thinks the $2.5 million the county now spends on social service grants is the best bargain in the county budget, but he wants longer-range planning.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, was the only council member who warmed to the new policy. And he joked that he might not be serving on the council next year when the new policy would take effect.

"I would feel more comfortable with committees studying this," Mr. Feaga said. "The council really doesn't know which agency is worthy" of receiving grants.

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