The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

July 22, 2013

Welfare spending options: Counties get more leeway in how they use social service funds

HARRISBURG — The state is moving forward with a plan to grant greater freedom to county leaders in determining how to spend social service dollars.

The updated welfare code provides that 10 more counties, including Cambria County, can participate in the human service block grant program.

With the expansion 30 counties, or almost half of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, will be eligible to participate.

The funding involves dollars used for programs such as drug addiction counseling, care for the mentally ill and homeless assistance. In counties that are not enrolled in the block grant, if money set aside for one social service is not exhausted at the end of the year, the money goes back to the state, even if the county has another program that has run out of money.

Officials in at least one of the 10 wait-listed counties have had second thoughts and are no longer interested in participating. Columbia County had planned to enroll but now plans to pass, said Commissioner Chris Young.

Columbia is part of a group of counties that share social services. To get any benefit, all of the counties in the program – which also serves Montour, Snyder and Union counties – would need to enroll in the block grant program. It is unclear whether officials in all four counties are interested, so there is no point in Columbia County enrolling in the block grant program, Young said. Phil Keating, the executive director of the CMSU, the social service agency serving those four counties, had testified before a House committee that he feared the block grants could be the undoing of regional efforts to provide social services.

The expansion of the block grant program comes just weeks after an appeals court raised questions about the legality of the original legislation that created the grants. The court noted that nothing in the original legislation explained how counties would be selected for the block grants, among other things.

But the revisions included in the 2013-14 welfare code correct the problems identified by the Commonwealth Court as part of a lawsuit filed by advocates for the mentally ill, said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman in the office of general counsel for the Corbett Administration. Attorneys for the state plan to file paperwork Wednesday arguing that the lawsuit ought to be dismissed because of the changes in the new law, Frederiksen said.

The changes correct the technical flaws with the law but they don’t change the matters that alarm advocates for those who depend on social services.

Mental health advocates are worried, saying that if county leaders use the new freedom to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” their services will almost certainly be those shortchanged.

Under the block grant plan, counties can take up to 20 percent of the dollars from one social service program and give it to another.

Mental health dollars represent about 70 percent of the money in the block grant, said Sue Walther, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Pennsylvania. That money includes dollars that the state set aside to care for people who would be institutionalized if the state had not closed most of its institutions for the care of those with mental illness. Advocates supported closing the facilities as long as the state provided the resources to care for the mentally ill in community-based settings. If the block grants allow those dollars to get diverted to other uses, the state will be reneging on the promises it made when the institutions were closed, Walther said. “I have serious problems” with that, Walther said.

In many cases, counties have used the block grant flexibility to divert more money to combat drug addiction.

Cambria County officials have indicated that they would have liked the block grant to help pay for residential drug treatment for as many as 20 people.

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