County rethinking grants to social service agencies Panel to study how money is awarded


A task force will convene next month to rethink how Howard County distributes money to human service agencies through its grants-in-aid program.

The 15-member group, to be appointed by Manus J. O'Donnell, county director of citizen services, will help implement changes to the program proposed by a 1991 task force.

Those changes include awarding grants based on a ranking of needs in the county and a year-round monitoring system of agencies that receive county money.

"Right now we respond to proposals given to us by nonprofits," Mr. O'Donnell said. "We'd like to determine the services that are of the greatest need rather than just being responsive."

Instead of awarding grants, for example, the county may contract with various agencies, based on competitive bids, to provide specialized services, he said.

Last year the grants-in-aid program awarded $2.5 million to 27 agencies, including the Howard County Association for Retarded Citizens; Grassroots, which operates a homeless shelter and crisis hotline; and the Sexual Assault Center.

The county authorized $2.7 million for the program in the fiscal 1994 budget that takes effect July 1.

The task force that will meet next month will include county officials, members of the 1991 task force, representatives from the county grant review committee, grant recipients and agencies that never have received grants.

The 1991 task force recommended that like-minded agencies be grouped together and work with a subcommittee that would meet monthly to monitor the agencies' use of grant money and determine the county's greatest needs. Monitoring now takes place on a quarterly basis.

Under the task force proposal, the grant review committee would award money based on priorities and recommendations established by the subcommittees.

The committee now reviews agency grant requests and makes recommendations as to which requests should be funded. The recommendations are forwarded to the county executive and the County Council for inclusion in the county budget adopted each May.

By setting needs priorities, the county can develop an "organized review" of essential services -- something that's been lacking, said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots.

"I think it can lead to a more coherent system of services in Howard county based on somebody having an overview of what the needs are and determining which services are the functions of county government," said Ms. Ingram, a member of the 1991 task force.

Under the current program, a need for services in the county may go unrecognized unless a group requests a grant, she said.

"I saw the county fund some things they weren't particularly enthusiastic about," Ms. Ingram said.

John Everett, president of the Howard County Association for Retarded Citizens, said he favors the county setting priorities, but is concerned about how that will be done.

"If it's not done in depth and done well, then you'd just end up funding the latest trends," he said. "There's a responsibility to the taxpayers to put the money where it will best serve the citizens of Howard County, but there also needs to be some way for the people to bring forth their own sense of priorities."

Human service providers welcomed more frequent contact with the county to address service needs and quality assurance issues.

Pat Hatch, director of the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, said she'd like to see an appeal process in the program in case an important need is overlooked.

"When we're spending a lot of the county's money, accountability is important," Ms. Ingram said. "Once-a-year contact can lead to awful surprises on both sides."

Mr. O'Donnell said he hopes to analyze the task force report by the end of summer and present recommendations for changing the system to the county executive and the County Council in the fall.

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