Proposal calls for closing of welfare offices

Social Services director wants to consolidate, eliminating nine sites

Eight regional centers planned

O'Malley says city agency isn't the place to cut costs

January 01, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Saying they hope to save money and improve efficiency, state officials are proposing to close almost half of the city's 20 social service offices - a move that critics fear will create frustrating complications for the poor as they travel farther to seek food stamps, welfare aid and emergency assistance.

Floyd R. Blair, interim director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, suggested closing nine offices as part of a sweeping reorganization proposal during a closed meeting with top administrators Dec. 18. That proposal came two days after a Circuit Court judge rejected Mayor Martin O'Malley's request for a restraining order that would have prevented Blair from making major changes to the department while a lawsuit over the legality of Blair's appointment continues.

In the lawsuit filed against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in November, O'Malley claims that Blair's management decisions are illegitimate because Ehrlich broke the law in selecting a director who lacks both the mayor's approval and the five years of required management experience.

O'Malley, a Democrat, said yesterday that Blair's proposal to slash costs confirms his worst fears about why Ehrlich, a Republican, insisted on going around the normal selection process in choosing Blair, a lawyer who served in the current Bush administration and is politically beholden to Ehrlich.

Blair, a former social worker from New York who was appointed interim director in September, was not available for comment, a spokeswoman said.

"This is all about covering the governor's political flank as he squeezes every dollar he can out of the Department of Social Services," O'Malley said.

"It's a fundamental philosophical difference between my administration, which sees the potential that exists in our poorest citizens, and the Ehrlich administration, which sees poor families and vulnerable children in Baltimore as a cost center to be squeezed for every dollar of budgetary savings that they can," O'Malley said.

At stake is the management of a long-troubled agency with a $537 million annual budget and 2,600 employees. It is run by the state, but its director sits on the mayor's Cabinet because he serves more than 50,000 needy families and foster children in the city.

The death in December 2002 of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes, who was tortured and starved by her guardian after the department failed to intervene, highlighted to many advocates the dangerous mismanagement of the agency and its chronic understaffing.

Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said yesterday that O'Malley's comments about the reorganization proposal were ill-informed, especially because the plan is at a very early stage.

"Is the mayor saying that the status quo is working? It certainly hasn't worked with this department," Massoni said. "Sometimes change is hard to accept, but it often can be good."

Details of proposal

Internal agency documents obtained by The Sun show that Blair is considering a plan to consolidate his department's 20 offices, scattered in neighborhoods around the city, into eight regional offices and create a new headquarters in an undisclosed location.

Among the regional offices, two would be new - one in Southwest Baltimore, perhaps in Edmondson Village, and the other in Southeast, perhaps in Highlandtown, according to the documents.

The proposal - which has not been approved by the governor and is subject to revision - calls for the closing of three neighborhood welfare offices in West Baltimore, at 1223 W. Pratt St., 500 N. Hilton St. and 5818 Reisterstown Road, according to a copy of a map Blair showed his administrators Dec. 18.

In addition, the state might close an in-home aid center for the elderly and disabled at 1800 N. Charles St.; an adult services center in Mondawmin Mall; a child protective services office at 1900 N. Howard St.; and three day care and foster care service offices at 2927, 3007 and 3031 E. Biddle St., in East Baltimore, according to the map.

`One-stop shopping'

Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which runs the city agency, said the concept would cluster services in a smaller number of regional offices, creating convenient "one-stop shopping" for customers enrolled in a variety of programs.

No state employees would be laid off as part of the consolidation, but the proposal would reduce the amount of rent the agency pays, saving money that could be rerouted into programs that help the needy, West said.

The new regional centers would be located near bus and subway stations so people could get to them easily, West said.

"We believe it will be a win-win for everybody: a win for customers, a win for staff, and a win for taxpayers, because they will see their money going into services instead of a lot of overhead," West said.

The discussion over closing the offices could delay some parts of a much-needed $4 million telephone system improvement project that Blair and the Ehrlich administration announced last month, state officials said.

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