Grim Family Service Cuts Previewed in Fairfax Meet

Budget cuts threaten to leave hundreds of children and families at risk of homelessness, poor health care and deficient education, as the Fairfax County Budget Committee heard Monday the Department of Family Services plan to cut spending by 15 percent for the 2010 fiscal year.

With the county’s projected 2010 fiscal year revenues continuing to bleed, leaving at least $430 million less than for the 2009 budget, the supervisors mandated all Fairfax County departments and agencies to slash budget proposals by 15 percent. That translates to a $15.7 million cut in 2010 for the Department of Family Services (DFS), potentially eliminating vital county programs such as the General Relief Program and delivering serious blows to children’s services like Head Start and School Age Child Care (SACC).

The General Relief Program has delivered a monthly check to low-income adults with temporary disabilities and to children living with non-relatives. Head Start is a federal and county-level program aimed at children up to the age of five that provides health and social services and educational programs, while SACC offers day care to children ages 5-12 before and after school.

DFS Director Nannette Bowler took an hour and a half Monday to underscore the effect of each budget reduction, organizing the cuts into three tiers of expendability, beginning with the easier cuts that the department could make.

Before delving into the specifics of a $15.7 million loss, Bowler referred to details of the crippling cuts: 1,300 disabled individuals and children at risk of homelessness, 870 children denied SACC care, 450 fewer families with access to health services and less capacity at the Women’s Shelter, a safe haven for abused women and their children, which is already smaller than services in neighboring counties like Arlington and Loudoun.

Likewise, Comprehensive Services to At-Risk Children, Youth and Families faces a $2.9 million cut that would put the county at odds with federal mandates that require county-level funding of foster home care and special education for children, but provide no means of reaching those targets.

Those cuts were a few of the scores of dramatic figures listed in the 91-slide presentation, which covered concerns from youth programs to services to the elderly, who will also see severe reductions in social services providing food and transportation.

Additionally, the DFS would reduce its 1,600-person staff by nearly 200 positions, severely restricting the department’s ability to assess and maintain its services’ clientele.

In a letter to DFS staff before Monday’s presentation, Bowler told staff members “to keep in mind that these are options for the County Executive [Tony Griffin] to consider – he may or may not choose to use them. … The Board could decide, after hearing from residents, to increase the tax rate rather than impose a major reduction in critical county services.”

Individual programs drew different concerns from members of the budget committee. Board Chair Gerry Connolly, who said earlier that the board would “have to look at whether we can afford services to very few people,” said that as a former SACC parent, the board should take caution in modifying the existing child care program. Connolly also noted Fairfax County’s “sorry history” in funding child care programs, which, according to the DFS review, have seen a steady decline in subsidies since 2006.

On several occasions during the presentation, Drainesville District Supervisor John Foust stressed the cost effectiveness of DFS programs. However, Foust told the News-Press that the board must look at programs like SACC under a “special light.”

“SACC is a good example where we get tremendous value out of an investment as a county. For every $1 spent, we get $3 from revenue,” said Foust, adding “Demand is going to increase for the program as the economy worsens.”

Despite the importance of some DFS services, Foust said, “I don’t think there’s going to be anyone spared in this budget process.” In an effort to shore up funds for vital programs in Human and Family Services, Foust said the board should look into how non-profit organizations could offset in-house budget cuts. “I’d much prefer to reduce cost in providing that service than cutting it.”

In light of DFS proposals, it was hard to tell the difference between programming “tiers and the tears that program cuts could cause,” Mason District Supervisor Penelope Gross told the News-Press.

Gross, who like Foust sat through hours of the proposed “lines of business” (LOB) cut plans, said, “We’ve come to expect nice programs in Fairfax County, but everyone will have to understand that there have to be cuts. We’re going to need to spread the pain across the board, so that we feel that pain together.”

Concerned by a potential “slippery slope,” in which families could face increasing unemployment and homelessness if the county slashed funding and access to programs like SACC, Gross added, “So many of these programs residents have come to expect as basic to life. Reducing SACC is to reduce service to 870 children, which means parents wouldn’t be able to work, spend time with their kids and keep their houses.”

Gross mentioned the proposed $3.4 million cut to the Child Care Assistance and Referral (CCAR) program, which risks upwards of 500 children and, as Gross points out, puts lower-income families on the verge of homelessness in the face of rising financial and time pressures on parents.

Gross said the county was “the last resort for many families who don’t get services from the state and federal level. How we handle the poorest of the poor is a part of our social compact.”

She clarified, however, that the proposed cuts are still options, and there was plenty of time for community input and evaluating the county’s financial position while the board continues to meet with department heads and county executives. Both Foust and Gross also warned of potential shortfalls the county might face as the board’s attention shifts from costs to revenue later this year.

The LOB presentations are expected to resume Nov. 14 and continue through December, when county executives will prepare a budget proposal for the board. A board vote on the 2010 budget is planned for some time in February 2009.