Magazine article Policy & Practice

Doing More with Less

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Doing More with Less

Article excerpt

With states and localities nationwide facing budget gaps, many social service agencies are laying off staff, reducing their services, and cutting programs and services. POLICY & PRACTICE talked with Barbara Gradet of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services in Baltimore, Maryland, to learn how one local agency is dealing with budget cuts.

Gradet is director of the department. She has more than 30 years of direct service and management experience in human services. She previously served as the director of the Baltimore County Department of Aging. She has also held key positions in the nonprofit and private sectors.

P&P: Reports from the National Conference of State Legislatures note that more than 30 states are facing budget gaps, some in excess of 5 percent. Eighteen have shortfalls above 10 percent. Can you give us an overview of how the shortfall has affected your department?

Gradet: Our state is one of those with a shortfall, though apparently not one of the worst in the country. To address the shortfall, 17 months ago the state imposed a hiring freeze for state employment, with some exceptions for public safety and certain areas. Since then, we have been unable to fill any positions when someone leaves. And, of course, our business is delivered through people. That's what we do. There's a lot of challenge that a hiring freeze presents, in terms of covering all of the needed services with the staff who remain, because you can't backfill any positions that become vacant. My department, along with many others throughout the country, has been experiencing an ever-increasing deficit of staff because we have natural attrition in this field. People move, they have babies, they change careers, and they leave. That's quite normal. That normal turnover becomes something very different when you cannot fill the position with someone else.

P&P: Has the hiring freeze affected service to your clientele?

Gradet: It has caused longer waiting times for people to do benefit assistance applications for food stamps, cash assistance, or medical assistance. People have to wait longer before they can see a worker, and we're unable to return phone calls as promptly. So certainly the timeliness starts to suffer. In the social work service area, obviously the impact on the workers becomes greater. Their caseload increases, and they're really stretched among a larger number of families or children or vulnerable adults, whatever their population is. So it's difficult to manage because none of our programs allows us to say, "I'm sorry, there's a waiting list now for food stamp applications" or "I'm sorry, we can't investigate your report of child abuse because we're short of staff." These are mandated and critical services.

P&P: What criteria are you using to decide which strategies to use to implement in meeting budget shortfalls while still providing services to your clientele?

Gradet: We've had to look at what are our core services and how we ensure that our resources are channeled to those most critical areas. Of course, other program areas naturally then will suffer some. Very often those services provide early intervention. You end up focusing your resources on the deeper-end services and those more emergency services. That's nothing new in human services. That happens when resources are reduced. Those earlier interventions, those more comprehensive services, end up reduced when you have to deliver the most critical services. So we went through extensive strategic planning, involving many stakeholders, including both community members and citizens, as well as local department and central office staff of the Department of Human Resources over the last year and a half, to continue to develop strategies for managing the dwindling resources. We have priority lists of which programs need to be delivered versus those that are certainly very valued. But, when it comes down to it, the valued but not critical programs will be the first to go. …

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