Social services funding debated

Disparities of tax policy, budget spark discussion

Needs of residents at issue

Local and state leaders attend ACS breakfast

Howard County

November 19, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County may be one of Maryland's wealthiest places, but up to 15,000 residents don't have health insurance, thousands need drug treatment, child abuse cases are at a high level and social services staffing is down by one-third.

Those disparities sparked a debate on tax policy among several legislators at a breakfast yesterday sponsored by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group of local social service agencies trying to negotiate their way through Maryland's budget crisis. The County Council and six of the county's 11 legislators attended.

Dels. Elizabeth Bobo and Frank S. Turner, both Columbia Democrats, attacked the idea of cutting federal and state taxes during a recession, contending that the small, short-term personal gain for taxpayers would be replaced by long-term losses to society - especially to groups that help the neediest citizens. Both said they voted against the state income tax reductions under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

But Del. Gail H. Bates, a western county Republican, argued that tax cuts are sparking an economic recovery, while policies such as County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to increase the real estate transfer tax only make affordable housing a tougher goal. The height of irresponsibility, she said, was the General Assembly's approval of the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education reforms without providing financing for the plan.

Social service providers who attended the meeting outlined the squeeze they are facing because of an increased demand for services at a time of fiscal constraints.

Carole MacPhee, vice president of the ACS board, said more than 14,000 people in Howard County need help with a substance abuse problem, but that only 3,000 are getting that help in the county. Some must go out of the county for help. "That's frightening," she said.

Linda Zumbrun, assistant director of the county's Social Services Department, said state budget cuts and job freezes have reduced her department's staff by more than 40 percent. The child protective services staff is down nearly one-third - but cases are at a high level of about 1,300 a year, she said.

Foster parents who work don't get as much money for child care as they used to, and the working poor can no longer get immediate help with child care, Zumbrun said.

A one-day survey by Howard County officials taken Oct. 6 gave an indication of the scope of homelessness in the county. The survey counted 233 homeless people, including some living in motels, shelters or other temporary arrangements, and several near release from jail but with no destination. Of the total, 108 were adults and 125 were children. Forty-six of those counted were working. The survey is considered a partial count - a snapshot of the county's problem.

Bobo said the loss of social workers and benefits to the poor is just the beginning.

"We got here by spending more than we had in some cases, but also by tax cuts in the middle of a recession. What we are going through is a tragedy," she said, while Maryland allows businesses to use loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

School board candidate Robert Ballinger, 36, told the group he received an $800 federal tax credit for his children which helped his middle-income family.

But Bobo told him the tax credit is just a one-time payment and "the services are going to be eliminated. We're going to lose much more in services."

Turner, who is chairman of the county's House delegation, said cutting state taxes was "foolish" because "it gave $100 to you" but cost the state $600 million in revenue.

"We can't afford to add $1,000 to [college] tuition. There are 12,000 people in Howard County, one of the most affluent counties in the world, without health care? That is a tragedy. We need to add revenue. We've got to be active. We've got to fight for these issues," he urged the crowd of just over 100 people in Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.

But Bates defended reducing taxes.

"Tax cuts at the federal level are starting to turn the economy around. It's really amusing to hear my colleagues talk about fiscal responsibility," she said, given their support of the unfunded Thornton Commission reform. Bates said she voted against Thornton. High taxes cause business owners to reduce hiring or cut health insurance for employees, she said.

Betty Wiles, 61, listened to the political debate, but she came with a different perspective on people in need.

"My husband is on disability, and I lost my job at the hospital," she said, explaining how the couple got help over the past seven years from the county's free, private Health Alliance Clinic.

Suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, foot problems and other ailments, her husband, Kenneth, is 65 and eligible for Medicare. "I can't stress enough how we feel about the help we've gotten," she said. "I don't know what I'd have done without their help."

Pam Mack, director of the clinic, said it has received 1,400 patient visits a year, of which 72 percent are women. Despite state health insurance programs for children, the clinic is booked with children's appointments through February and has treated 173 children this year.

Howard County has between 12,000 and 15,000 people who do not have health insurance, she said.

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