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Md. returns county social service funds

The Baltimore Sun

Accepting needed cash but then not using it could be considered rude, but that is what Maryland officials did with $350,000 Howard County provided to help staff the state-run social services office in Columbia.

The county government contributes more than $400,000 annually to help the local Social Services office hire clerks and support staff, according to county budget officials. But because of the combined effects of high turnover and a partial state hiring freeze in place since 2001, a portion of the local aid remains unused while the county's poor wait for service.

The freeze has been adjusted - loosened and tightened depending on conditions over the years - until last fall when a ban on state hiring of contractual employees stopped the use of outside funds.

County and state officials say they've now worked out a solution to what they describe as a complex bureaucratic problem, but the dilemma is not new.

Four years ago, the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fired Kathi Heslin, a 28-year veteran assistant director of Howard County Social Services after she was quoted in a Sun article describing the situation to the county social services board. She told the board then that state officials refused to approve using county money to fill five vacant jobs because "the perception of increasing state government is not acceptable."

Since the freeze had lowered staffing by nearly one-third by then, the county-funded jobs were badly needed, board members were told.

Heslin later unsuccessfully sued to regain her job, and she and her husband eventually moved to North Carolina.

But despite the election of former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley as governor, county officials were surprised to learn this spring that little had changed.

"It was news to me," County Executive Ken Ulman said.

Social service workers have made a compelling case that the need for services exists, Ulman said, but the county won't contribute more money until the current balance is spent. Under the agreement reached, county and state officials said, the state will return the $350,000 and the county will administer its use.

"We're basically drawing down money we've already provided," Ulman said. "When a local jurisdiction wants to partner, there's got to be a mechanism."

Previously, the county gave money to the state. When a hiring freeze occurred, the money couldn't be spent without permission from state budget officials, said Brian Wilbon, deputy director of the state Department of Human Resources.

In addition, the clerical jobs the funding is used to fill typically have high turnover because they don't pay well, Wilbon said. But it takes months to get permission to fill a vacancy and months longer to train a person for the $27,000-a-year positions. The pay is set in state personnel rules, so social services can't simply increase the salary.

"We have to request an exception [to the freeze] every time we lose an employee," Wilbon said, adding that there are more than 100 vacancies statewide. "We have to put together a case and go to the Office of Management and Budget."

By the time an exception is granted and a person hired and trained, several more positions typically become vacant.

"We have significant turnover. A constant churn," he said.

Under the new arrangement, the county keeps the money and uses it to hire staff for the state, Wilbon said, adding that his department is considering asking for options such as hiring bonuses to help keep the jobs filled.

Tom Mullenix, a county budget analyst, said the bulk of the unspent money resulted from the freeze's tightening last fall. When the funds come back, the county will conduct an audit and hire five contract employees, not permanent workers, he said. Most importantly, the money will be part of the county's budget, not the state's.

Some local social service advocates were troubled to learn about how money intended to provide services for the poor went unspent.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Michael C.A. McPherson, a long-serving member of the county social services board. "We're concerned about it."

Melody Higgins, a member of the Howard County social service board during the Heslin incident, concurred.

"It really makes no sense to me that if the county is paying for an employee, the state could freeze county money," she said. "That would bear some explaining."

Jeffrey M. Levitt, the board chairman, was more forgiving.

"It's just a bad situation all the way around," he said. "There's a big need out there. I think social services staff is doing a phenomenal job with the resources they've been provided."

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