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State, city wrestle with job freeze, foster-care woes


The state's budget crisis may make it impossible for the Maryland Department of Human Resources to remain in compliance with a federal consent decree governing Baltimore's foster care system, according to Carol Dugan of Advocates for Children and Youth, Inc.

Dugan said yesterday that the Baltimore Department of Social Services must meet certain staffing requirements under the terms of the decree, which resulted from a 1984 lawsuit against the state on behalf of foster children.

For example, Dugan said, DSS is supposed to have a caseload-per-worker ratio of 20-to-1. But, she added, the current ratio is closer to 28-to-1. She also said there are 21 vacancies in the city's foster care department.

Furthermore, the staff is so overburdened that it has fallen behind in scheduling home studies of prospective foster parents.

"They're backed up 100 home studies for foster home parents," Dugan said.

She said DSS is trying to cope with the shortages by shifting available staff.

Mitch Mirviss, one of the attorneys who represents the foster children who first brought suit against the state in 1984, said: "We're still trying to figure out what effect the state budget cuts are going to have. We're obviously concerned."

Based upon estimates compiled by the governor's budget experts, the state is facing a shortfall of at least $180 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 1991. Analysts for the legislature predict the deficit could reach at least $249 million.

In order to fashion a plan to absorb the deficit, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's budget officials say that except for a handful of modest exemptions, they are sticking to strict cost-cutting guidelines.

But aside from the broad constraints he put on hiring, automobile purchases and travel six weeks ago, Schaefer is not expected to announce details of his belt-tightening plan until after the Nov. 6 general election.

State House sources said all state agency heads were directed in a recent memorandum not to speak publicly about specific proposals to cut their budgets until Schaefer's final decisions are issued.

The administration's gag order was based solely upon practical -- and not political -- considerations, according to Paul E. Schurick, the governor's press secretary, who brushed aside the notion that Schaefer does not want to hurt his re-election plans with gloomy budget news.

"In some respects, we're shooting at a moving target," said Schurick, who added that the governor's budget staff is attempting to assemble a workable cuts with ever changing economic data.

Last month, Schaefer directed the heads of state departments and agencies to propose ways to trim their current budgets by as much as 6 percent.

Smaller agencies were asked to cut their budgets by 1 percent while the biggest spenders -- such as the departments of higher education, human resources and health -- were ordered to cut back spending by the maximum 6 percent.

"We're still working on it," said Dennis H. Parkinson, the deputy secretary for the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning and one of the key administration figures reviewing proposed

cutbacks. "Some of the agencies have coughed up some things that aren't palatable and had to be sent back."

The hiring freeze affects about 5,000 budgeted but unfilled job vacancies and should save the state at least $100 million, according to Parkinson. Most of the vacancies, which represent about 6 percent of the state work force, are in the health, transportation and public safety departments.

The administration granted exemptions to the hiring freeze when it threatened health-related services in some areas, including a Western Maryland hospital, an Eastern Shore animal laboratory and a Baltimore City embalming facility.

And in a special exemption, Schaefer said prison guards would continue to be hired as needed.

Otherwise, said Parkinson, the freeze affects all openings "unless they are absolutely essential and critical" to public health and safety.

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