Needy city residents could get more efficient access to social service programs if the state closed some neighborhood welfare offices and clustered services into fewer regional centers, a top state official said yesterday.
Assailed for proposing changes that critics say would hurt the poor, Secretary of Human Resources Commissioner Christopher J. McCabe yesterday gave his first interview on his vision for reforming the city's sprawling 20-office, 2,400 employee Department of Social Services.
Shutting down perhaps nine of these offices could save the state about $3 million a year in rent, according to state records. That money would better be used in helping the needy instead of paying for offices and overhead, McCabe said. But McCabe said saving money isn't the primary reason he's been studying a consolidation of the city's Department of Social Services (DSS.) He said his goal is to improve a long-troubled agency, so that it is run more efficiently, more convenient to clients and less centralized and top-heavy in management.
"It's too large. ... How can any one person realistically be able to administer the wide array of programs that are called for in the city ... in any efficient way because it is so large?" McCabe asked during an interview in his office on West Saratoga Street, his first since The Sun reported the proposal Jan. 1.
"I've raised the question to some of our people: 'Can you come up with some ways that we can perhaps develop a system that is more community-based? Where instead of having one DSS in the city, you look at having perhaps six smaller [ones], so you have a greater connection to the communities that you directly serve?'"
McCabe, a former Republican state senator who took office last year, said that Milwaukee and New York City have made similar moves toward creating a smaller number of "one-stop shopping" centers for social service programs.
With the change, a client who wants to apply for food stamps, inquire about becoming a foster parent or ask for help with an elderly relative can go to one regional office instead of going to three different offices, McCabe said.
Advocates for the poor have been skeptical of moves that McCabe has made to save money recently, most notably a six-month freeze on cash assistance for disabled people.
Some critics say it appears that the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is trying to solve part of the state's budget crisis by cutting aid to the poorest and most vulnerable residents.
Opponents argue that closing welfare offices in the city might mean longer bus rides and more hassles for the needy.
"As cost-cutting moves, these changes make perfect sense," said Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which provides legal help to the needy. "But in terms of helping the Department of Human Resources fulfill their mission and serving people, it doesn't make any sense."
For years, the city's Department of Social Services has run nine neighborhood welfare offices scattered around the city, where people can apply for food stamps, medical assistance cards, emergency housing assistance and other programs.
All of the child protective services workers are in a central office at 1900 N. Howard St. Workers who deliver food and other aid to elderly and disabled adults are located at 1800 N. Charles St.
Under a proposal that interim Baltimore City Department of Social Services director Floyd Blair discussed with 90 top administrators Dec. 18, three neighborhood welfare offices on the west and northwest side would be closed, along with the citywide headquarters for child protective services, adult services and foster care, among others.
The workers in the targeted programs would be scattered among six regional offices around the city, the locations of which are still being studied, according to department officials.
While the former administration cut appropriations for the state agency between 1995 and 2001, Ehrlich is proposing a 6.5 percent increase for the year starting July 1, McCabe said.
The agency budget is about $1.5 billion a year. With some of that money, McCabe said he's looking to hire about 50 more caseworkers in the city. "Sixty percent of the state's need for these services is in the city, so if 60 percent of that money went to the city, that would be very welcomed," said James Craigen, chairman of the city's advisory Social Services Commission.