The stories still circulate about Columbia pioneers sitting around kitchen tables in the city's formative years, deciding which human services agencies would take root in the fertile ground that was rural Howard County in the early 1960s, says Anne Towne.
Out of that hotbed of activism sprang the Association of Community Services, an initiative founded in 1963 as "an organization that looks after other organizations," said Towne, who has led the umbrella group since 2001.
Now, as she prepares to step down Wednesday after a decade as executive director, Towne believes the economic downturn that's been gripping the country will continue to alter the human services landscape for years to come.
"I've seen the economy rise and fall over the past decade, but nothing quite like the recession that began in 2008," said Towne, 58.
Homeowners are still dealing with foreclosures, she said, the county's unemployment rate of 5.1 percent remains nearly double the 2.9 percent of July 2007, and human service providers are striving to serve more people even as funding gaps widen.
"This is a very unique time when public money and philanthropy are both dwindling. We will see more precarious operations and a greater emphasis on collaboration and consolidation by human service providers, along with more pressure on the government to perform," the Columbia resident predicted.
The solution? "It's like a spider crawling up the wall of a bathtub; it will take many legs working together," she said.
ACS brings together the county's for-profit and nonprofit groups, faith-based communities and government agencies with a goal to help people through education, training and connections, she said. This unusual approach avoids duplication of services, promotes communication and makes "the system" easier to navigate for clients, she said.
During times of cost-cutting, "even level funding is actually a reduction in funding" for these agencies, as more people are in need of more services, Towne said.
"The money isn't always proportionate to the population's needs, yet the human services community is not one to turn people away," she said.
"It's not that we don't have sound fiscal policies," she said. "But since we wouldn't think of raising the price of a counseling session or charging people to use the food bank when our costs go up, the question becomes, 'How do we deal with this and stay vibrant?' "
According to a March report compiled for ACS on the impact felt in the county since the recession hit three years ago, applications for food stamps grew by 80 percent between 2008 and 2011, from 2,650 households to 4,750 households, and requests for energy assistance more than doubled during the same period, from 2,050 households to 4,700 households. Other indicators also rose.
One factor contributing to these increases is that the population being served by human services providers has been redefined, Towne said. The recession has ushered in a class dubbed the "new poor," which is composed of people who had jobs but lost them, have lost their savings and whose unemployment benefits have run out.
"These are the people who never would have imagined themselves as applying for anything," she said.
Towne's replacement should be announced shortly, said Harry Schwarz, the departing board president. He said offers have gone out to top applicants, and Towne will continue work in a reduced capacity until her successor is named.
ACS continues to strongly encourage its 110 members, of which 81 are nonprofit organizations, to increase their volunteer corps and to collaborate more than ever with fellow agencies in order to keep their heads above water in lean budgetary times, Towne said.
"We have been asking all member agencies to please not cut their services, because once they're gone they're harder to start back up," she said, a situation that could prove critical to families and individuals dealing with the fallout of the recession.
Towne's "grace under pressure" during rocky times is what has kept ACS running smoothly for 10 years, said Schwarz, who will be replaced as board president by Jackie Eng and become a one-year board member.
"Anne's rock-solid steadiness and commitment to taking every major decision to the membership to solicit their input and involvement are ultimately what made her so effective," he said. "Anne's accessibility is a quality we've been looking for in our next director."
Towne said her decision to step down wasn't based on anything in particular, though 10 years of service was a handy benchmark for ACS to pause and take stock of the future.
"While ACS needs to stay relevant, and I don't think it will have any problem doing that, sometimes when you come to something like 10 years it's nice to bring in a fresh perspective," she said.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who has worked closely with ACS, said, "Some people believe Howard County has a greater responsibility because of our wealth to see that we don't have people in need. Government can't just step aside, but must monitor its grants-in-aid.
"It requires a lot of dedication and stamina to speak up for our vulnerable populations," she said. "It's going to be a tall order to replace Anne, who has a remarkable temperament, intellect and compassion. But I think we'll be able to fill that order."
Towne said she'll devote more time to building the client base at the Towne Group, a media and management consulting company she founded in 2002 with her brother, Charles Towne, and his wife, Maggie Dore. She also will oversee All About Parties, a Tucson, Ariz., company that rents inflatable bounce houses, concession equipment and carnival games.
"I like to have diversity in my workday, and these are two businesses that are very different, but each fun in their own way. It was a matter of taking advantage of opportunities," she said. She also expects to spend more time with her 80-year-old mother, who lives with her.
Roy Appletree, a recent past president of the ACS board and longtime community activist, called Towne "a consummate professional with dignity and integrity, and someone who was never flustered."
"And when there was advocacy to be done, she would push when she needed to push," he said.
"Our focus doesn't need to change that much, but we'll have to continue to be aware of those who will be in need tomorrow," Appletree said. "Nowadays, almost anyone could suddenly require our services, so the next director will have to push even harder."