Mental health agency makes cuts, is trying to save services

Md. reductions force administrator to scramble

Howard County

February 18, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When state budget cuts slashed 30 percent of administrative funding from Howard County's Mental Health Authority last summer, Executive Director Donna Wells took steps to save money without affecting services.

She combined two positions, found cheaper office space and eliminated the complimentary sandwiches and sodas at the authority's advisory board meetings.

Wells is not expecting the situation to improve soon.

"There's no new growth, no new money for new programs," Wells said. "That's the frustrating part, but we keep plugging away, and eventually there will be money for some project."

In the meantime, the authority has scaled back services and made staffing adjustments.

Howard County's Mental Health Authority was created in 1997 to bring more local control to the delivery of mental health services to county residents. Similar organizations serve residents throughout Maryland.

The agencies, which receive most of their funding from the state Mental Hygiene Administration, are managed in different ways. Typically, they do not provide clinical services but direct public and private funds to an array of providers and programs for the mentally ill.

Wells said the state budget cuts hit the Mental Health Authority particularly hard because of Howard's affluence. The county has the lowest percentage of people in the state receiving public money from the Medicaid program.

"Howard County doesn't get funding sometimes because we look too good on paper," Wells said. "What they didn't take into account is that this is a high cost-of-living county."

Harford County's Core Service Agency lost about 17 percent of its administrative budget, but was able to offset some of the impact with help from the county government. In November, the agency moved to county-owned offices, where the yearly rent is $1, said the executive director, Michael J. Drummond.

The savings reduces the number of furlough days - to be split among the four-member administrative staff - from 90 to 43. But the agency has not avoided cuts. The mobile crisis team - which responds to mental health emergencies - no longer operates on weekends, and some case management services were scaled back.

"Although the cuts were significant, we were also successful in replacing some of those monies with support from the county and some federal dollars," Drummond said.

Anne Arundel County's Mental Health Agency eliminated a mentoring program, left a position unfilled and instituted furlough days for employees, said Francis A. Sullivan, the agency's executive director.

In Howard, the authority will soon see a significant reduction in one of its costliest expenditures - the $70,000 annual rent for its Columbia offices.

When its Dorsey's Search lease expires in May, the authority plans to move to Long Reach Village Center, where the rent is less than $25,000.

"We couldn't afford to renew the space here because it's so costly," said Wells, who added that the rent at Dorsey's Search doesn't include $6,000 in utility costs.

Other money-saving measures include a reduction in staffing, from six full-time positions to 4 1/2 . The consumer advocate job was downgraded from full time to part time, and two positions - the adult coordinator and the child and adolescent coordinator - were combined.

When the employees who held the jobs resigned in August and September, Wells decided not to fill both positions.

"We can't do all we were doing, but we looked at the essential functions of each of the jobs, and blended the position to address those functions," Wells said.

The job description of the new position still includes overseeing the county's residential housing programs that serve mentally ill adults, and monitoring county youths sent by the juvenile courts to residential treatment centers throughout the state. However, that leaves less time to track the cases of children in centers who weren't placed there by the juvenile court system.

"We have to prioritize," Wells said.

Other services that were apportioned between two coordinators have been put on the back burner, including managing grants that the authority distributes to local mental health providers and visiting residential treatment centers to discuss the treatment of county youths placed there.

In addition, the budget cuts forced the authority to limit medical benefits to employees only, excluding family members; to reduce contributions to employees' 401(k) retirement accounts; and to reduce training programs for staff members.

The agency's mobile crisis team continues to operate from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. This fiscal year, the county allocated $193,000 for the program. Wells said it is the only crisis team in the state funded entirely with local money.

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