The Importance of Human Services

The Importance of Human Services

Unlike other levels of government, human services are the primary mission of county government. Delivering high-quality services to improve the quality of life for seniors, people with disabilities, the abused, addicted, neglected and forgotten helps stabilize families, build stronger communities and make Westmoreland County a better place. That’s why county government should immediately restore unnecessary cuts to the often life-sustaining programs we are supposed to support.

Every year, every county receives state money through the Human Service Development Fund (HSDF). This money is designed to be flexible to allow counties to identify and fund human service needs and priorities in their area. This year Westmoreland County was awarded $360,493. In the 2017 county budget, $106,892 was indiscriminately cut from key service provider partners, and instead was funneled to county agency operations where the balance was already being used, essentially zeroing out the county’s contribution to most of these vital agencies.

It was wrong.

The $106,892 represents only .03 percent of our $310 million annual budget, yet has a profound impact on our communities and our most vulnerable. We should restore this necessary funding immediately, and we can do it without hurting the county budget.

But first, why this matters.

Recently I reached out to our affected partner agencies to quantify the impact these cuts will have on the vulnerable populations they serve. To move beyond money; to focus on people’s lives. It is eye-opening.

The affected agencies are the Westmoreland County Food Bank, United Way, Blackburn Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, Family Services of Western PA, the Union Mission, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

For every dollar the Food Bank receives, it can purchase roughly $10 worth of retail value food. So in reality the $50,000 cut represents a $500,000 reduction in retail value food that it can provide. This will mean the elimination of multiple food items from monthly food boxes starting as early as July 1 and will impact 16,500 individuals served each month.

Last year the Food Bank supplied more than 7.3 million pounds of food or roughly 6.1 million meals to those in need. The recently launched fresh milk initiative that delivers milk produced at local dairy farms to pantry recipients each month is also now in jeopardy. The Food Bank is also facing cuts across the board from many different levels of government funding, particularly the State Food Purchase Program. Fifteen years ago, about 10 percent of its budget came from fundraising. Today, more that 65 percent of its $3.5 million budget comes from it.

It is worth noting, too, that in its latest audit, 95 cents of every dollar taken in went back out to help those in need.

Because of the United Way-led 211 Information and Referral service, available 24-7, Westmoreland County was able to close our county-run I&R in 2013, saving us about $150,000 annually. More than 5,200 Westmoreland County residents used 211 last year, connecting them to heat, shelter and food. Other needs include volunteer income tax preparation for families in poverty, kindergarten enrollment, health insurance, and emergency cold and weather programs.

The $20,000 cut forces the United Way to use unrestricted money to support this important program, meaning it will not be able to support other programs, meaning less food, less shelter, less domestic violence service and prevention, etc. It’s an exponential impact.

Child sexual abuse is a tragic crime that touches the lives of children throughout Westmoreland County. Because of the insidious nature of this abuse, children must have access to information about how to seek help. Prevention/awareness programs at Blackburn Center have provided thousands of children, parents and teachers with a much greater awareness of the problems and prevention techniques related to child sexual abuse.

In school year 2015-2016, Blackburn presented 1,496 classroom-based programs to more than 15,000 students in the county, reaching children from preschool through high school. HSDF funding was $20,000 for many years; with a reduction to $11,000 several years ago; and a further reduction to $6,000.

Family Services of Western PA provides parenting classes for anyone who needs them. Since it cannot bill insurances for programs the agency is dependent on grants and funding, like HSDF. Family Services provided parent education and support to nearly 1,400 county residents in 2015/2016, including programing at the County Prison to help rehabilitate inmates.

Without HSDF, Family Services will haves to scale back on workshops and presentations it provides to Head Start parent groups, local high school Family and Consumer Science classes, community presentations and the number of evidence-based parenting classes offered throughout the county. These funding reductions will force FSWP to reduce the number of parenting series offered from six times per year to twice a year, causing hardship to families in need of evidence-based parenting programs because they will not be able to meet court orders or improve their family dynamics, as there are no other parenting classes offered in the county. These minimal investments in these types of prevention programs save substantially in the long run related to behavioral health and justice related interventions later.

The $2,500 cut to the Union Mission in Latrobe impacts 200 nights of shelter for homeless men in our county. As a small agency, it strives to utilize every dollar to the direct benefit of the men they serve. Per dollar the Mission spends $0.89 on programming (with $0.39 going toward physiological and safety needs and $0.50 going toward direct, individual support) $.09 on management and general expenses, and $.01 on fundraising. The funding gap impacts not only its operations, but also its sustainability as it looks towards other funding partners in a capital campaign to increase capacity for the homeless.

Because of the loss of HSDF funding, 15-25 children who are in desperate need of a positive role model and influence in their lives will not have the opportunity for support and guidance during critical development years. The mission of Big Brothers/Big Sisters – a nationally-known organization – is to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally-supported one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever. It has provided much-needed mentoring services for local Westmoreland County youth for more than 40 years.

The average annual cost for one adjudicated youth placed in a juvenile detention facility is $130,149. Conversely, the average annual cost to provide a local child with a Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mentor is less than $1,000, and even less in its School-Based Mentoring programs.

The services these six agencies provide tie directly to the single greatest challenge we face in Westmoreland County – the opiod epidemic. As we work so hard to combat this enormous challenge, it is worth remembering that there is ample evidence demonstrating that desperation and hardship lead directly to drug use. Certainly, hunger, homelessness, and the lack of positive role models fuel desperation. These agencies provide an important line of preventive defense in our fight against drug abuse.

Moreover, this was the second year of a very comprehensive and competitive Request for Proposal grant process. The proposal process took hours and hours of time, with staff from these agencies attending RFP workshops, as well as writing and researching. Now the groups who had hoped to receive some level of funding for human service programs are left to come up with another plan, which will likely include service cuts to the most vulnerable residents of our community. It’s clear that both the process and the results are broken.

As I mentioned earlier, we can restore funding without hurting the county budget. In January this year, we identified $169,422 in additional savings through something called an “Indirect Cost Reconcile” (basically a long overdue accounting measure that allowed us to recapture some county “match” money that wasn’t spent on programs the past decade). So we could fund these services and still realize an unexpected savings of $62,530 to the county’s General Fund this year. We will be able support these important, often life-sustaining, programs and also help our bottom line. It’s a win-win.

I am hopeful we’ll do the right thing now and fix it all.