Change in aid process debated

Baltimore, state at odds over energy assistance

City takes forms at only 1 site

Md. makes announcement, upsetting local agency

August 17, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A change in the way city residents apply for energy assistance has set off a new round of sparring between Baltimore and state officials.

Since Aug. 9, residents have been able to apply for energy help at only one location in Baltimore, 2700 N. Charles St., instead of six places around the city.

The city Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, did not announce the change. Instead, the state Department of Human Resources, which funds the program, did.

"City stops Maryland Energy Assistance Program at six district locations," read the headline on the state agency's news release.

David Tillman, a city housing spokesman, questioned why the state was announcing a change in a city-run program.

"The implication that we're reducing our commitment to Baltimore families in need of energy assistance is misleading and inaccurate," Tillman said. He added that staff who used to take the aid applications at the six offices have been reassigned to work door to door in neighborhoods - where, among other things, they are accepting the applications.

But Norris P. West, spokesman for the state agency, said the state felt it had to alert residents since the city did not widely publicize the change.

"It was irresponsible for them to not have done that themselves," West said. "It was kind of weird. The city didn't send anything out. Apparently they posted a notice [at the six offices] or were handing out fliers. These are our customers, and we wanted to make sure the customers knew where the services are offered and where they're not."

The dispute comes as the city and state are embroiled in a battle over who will lead the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, a state agency overseen by the Department of Human Resources.

The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed Floyd R. Blair to the post in September, over the objections of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who by law has a say in the selection. O'Malley successfully sued, and the city and state have until late this month to find someone they can agree on to run the department.

The city criticized Blair in December for suggesting that the state close nine of the city's 20 Social Services offices. City officials said the move, which was intended to save money and improve efficiency, would make it difficult for the poor to obtain food stamps and other aid.

"I remember the city being quite critical of the state when we had plans to consolidate DSS offices," West said.

The state's plan, which is still under consideration, would not have inconvenienced the poor as much as the city's change, since 11 Social Services offices would remain, West said.

"We weren't talking about going to one DSS office in the city," West said.

Also critical of the city's change is Kenneth D. Schisler, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, which oversees home-energy programs. He said he was preparing a letter to housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, asking him to reconsider.

"I just can't imagine a credible reason not to accept the applications," Schisler said.

The city had been accepting an average of 25,000 applications for energy assistance a year at six "community action centers," each located in a different council district, Tillman said.

While the centers remain open to provide other services, most of their staff has been dispatched to neighborhoods to offer energy assistance and other types of aid door to door, he said.

The centers will continue to accept the applications in cases of emergency or if the applicant is disabled.

The change was meant to make processing applications quicker and more efficient, and to free up housing workers to spend more time in the field, Tillman said. It also allows city workers to see if families need other services, such as smoke detectors, housing weatherization and school supplies, said Reggie Scriber, who heads the housing department's Office of Community Services, which runs the centers.

"The best way to help these at-risk families is not to sit in an office and wait for them to come in and ask for help," Tillman said. "People don't come in and ask for these things. You've got to meet them out in the street."

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