County Commissioners express doubts on using grant for new homeless shelter Staff warns of yearly cost if federal support ends

May 31, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners are considering returning $125,000 in grant money that would help pay for construction of a new homeless shelter in Westminster, citing concerns about providing tax dollars for future operating expenses.

The commissioners' deliberation over the grant, which represents 36 percent of the estimated $342,000 building cost, stems from a staff warning that renewal of separate funding to cover shelter operating expenses may become more difficult in the future.

The commissioners do not expect to make a decision until July 1.

"The issue, I guess, is that there is no set guarantee," said Jolene G. Sullivan, director of the county Department of Citizen Services, referring to a renewal of a federal grant for operating expenses.

"I don't think it's going to be as easy a process to receive the operating money as it was before," she said. "Three years ago, it looked like it would be no problem to get the operating money. But every year it gets more difficult."

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown has proposed returning the construction portion of a $1.2 million grant, federal money administered by the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Brown said he was worried about a 20-year county commitment to operate the shelter -- required by terms of the grant -- and the prospect that the county would have to pay future operating costs.

He suggested the county find a solution by convening a countywide forum "to bring together interest groups and individuals, to let them voice their opinions on what Carroll County ought to be doing."

Brown said the site selection process has suffered from becoming "a contest between the county government and Westminster." He said shelter locations outside the city should be considered.

The county must replace the existing Safe Haven shelter, which is housed in a building adjacent to Carroll County General Hospital. The commissioners agreed to sell the building to the hospital in 1995 on the condition that a new site be found for the shelter.

The commissioners planned to build a new shelter on nearby county-owned land, but announced in July 1997 that they were abandoning that site. The commissioners have spent nearly a year debating alternative sites with Westminster officials.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the grant, which includes construction money and three years of operating expenses for the shelter. The grant expires in March.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell has proposed setting a Sept. 1 deadline for action on construction of the shelter.

If the county hasn't identified other shelter options by then, "we should just build it and go ahead with it," he said.

"We've voted four times to put it in Crowltown," he said, referring to a county-owned park in the 200 block of North Center St., between the County Office Building and a 7-Eleven convenience store in Westminster.

"It's been a mess for two years now," Dell said. "We really don't have a consensus at this point."

That site has been opposed by Westminster officials. The 5.25-acre park has been a key part of a $600,000 project to clean up Longwell Run, a stream that runs through the park.

Dell predicted that the commissioners will still be discussing the issue in September.

Dell said he favors building a shelter in Crowltown or renovating the basement of a former elementary school at 224 N. Center St., opposite the county offices. He said the renovation, estimated at $100,000, would be less expensive than having the county spend $175,000 to help cover the costs of building a shelter.

Commissioner Richard T. Yates didn't return repeated telephone calls.

Sylvia Canon, director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., a private corporation that operates homeless shelters under contract with the county, said that until the commissioners notify her of a new plan, "we're continuing to operate the shelter where and how we have been."

Safe Haven has 26 beds for the homeless, mentally ill and substance abusers. It has eight additional slots for another rehabilitation program that lasts up to 12 weeks.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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