Sections

About Us

 
Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism
 

Group warns child protection will slide without new funds

Thursday, October 14, 2004 by

Massive caseloads likely to grow with staff cuts

It may get even tougher to be down and out in Texas. Fresh on the heels of news that the Texas Department of Human Services may soon slash between 4,800 and 6,000 positions ( The Quorum Report, 10/13/04), a public interest group has issued a policy brief outlining a set of very expensive steps it says are needed to fix the state’s ailing child protective services program. The Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) this week published “Funding Child Protection in Texas,” a scathing indictment of the state’s child protection program.

CPPP Executive Director Scott McCown, a former state district judge in Travis County, said the system Texas has in place to protect abused and neglected children simply doesn’t work. “Child protective services in this state is at rock bottom,” McCown said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “Texans have heard story after terrible story about children dying because our system failed to protect them.”

The report paints a picture of a program that is under-funded, understaffed, and losing ground because of a rapidly growing need for its services. According to the report, the $645 million Texas spends on child protection – an average of $110 per child—ranks 48th in the nation, and is 60 percent below the national average of $277 per child. To reach the national average, Texas needs to spend an additional $984 million.

As a result, McCown said, the workload for CPS caseworkers in Texas is the highest in the nation. “We desperately need more feet on the street here in Texas,” he said. The average caseload for investigators in Texas is 39, and can range as high as 56, McCown says. The recommended level is between 12 and 15 cases. “Right now, we have 805 caseworkers here in Texas, but to cut the workload down to where it needs to be, we need about 2,700 investigators.”

Such a massive workload often puts CPS workers on the horns of a dilemma. McCown said the condition of the state’s foster care program is such that in some cases, CPS workers often have to decide whether it’s better to leave children in a bad home situation, or place them into a substandard foster care program. “The standards say we’re only supposed to have two kids per foster home,” McCown noted. “But in Texas, we allow up to six kids in a foster home, and up to 12 in group homes. Our foster homes are stretched to the breaking point and are not able to provide the kind of care anyone would want.”

The CPPP report points out that, aside from the pressing need for increased funding, another problem is that some funding sources could dry up or get locked in at the current low levels. The Compensation to Victims of Crime (CVC) provides $62 million in funding for foster care payments (about 9 percent of the total) and $3.4 million for Adult Protective Services programs at CPS in 2004-05. However, the attorney general warns that the fund is being rapidly depleted, and can’t be counted on for future funding of child protection programs. Meanwhile, a change in federal funding could also cut into current CPS funding levels, as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs may change from an entitlement to a block grant structure. Block grants are based on past levels of spending, McCown said, so Texas could be locked into a low funding formula under the changed program.

But the biggest hurdle, McCown said, is finding the political will to ensure the state’s children are being served at an appropriate level. For that to happen, McCown says, new taxes will be necessary.

“In an atmosphere where CPS is going to have to compete with school funding for general fund tax dollars, the Legislature is going to have to find new sources of revenue to solve this problem,” McCown said. “They can’t just rearrange the management structure and say they’ve fixed it. With the situation we have now, you could put just about anyone in charge and they would not be able to overcome the problems we are having, due to under-funding and a high workload.”

Three basic options exist for raising the revenue needed to fund CPS, McCown said: a broad based business activity tax, a broad expansion of sales tax to services, and a personal income tax. If the state continues to cut the amount of money it pays for CPS, McCown said, is could be a formula for disaster.

“If that happens, there’s no way to pay for it,” he said. “There’s currently talk about capping property taxes. That would mean that you are sending [cities and counties] a huge, unfunded mandate at the same time you are capping their property taxes.”

Smoking law emerges as early campaign issue

The newest little political action committee (PAC) on the block is called Austin Supports Health (ASH). Veteran political consultant Alfred Stanley will serve as campaign treasurer. Rodney Ahart, lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, is listed along with Stanley as a decision-maker in the campaign, which will focus on tougher city smoking regulations.

In Fact Daily that ASH would support City Council candidates who make a commitment to the anti-smoking ordinance approved under Mayor Gus Garcia. That ordinance never took effect because implementation was delayed from June 2003, when it was approved, to September. The vote for the ordinance was 4-3, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Will Wynn and Raul Alvarez opposed. (See In Fact Daily, June 6, 2003). At that time, implementation was delayed to give the Health Department and businesses affected by the ban, most notably restaurants and bars, an opportunity to get ready for the ordinance.

After Wynn became Mayor and ordinance opponent Brewster McCracken joined the Council, the new Council watered down the ordinance significantly. Although health advocates, including the Cancer Society, opposed changes to the ordinance, club and bar owners applauded them.

A changing of the Council guard next year makes the smoking ordinance a pending hot issue for City Hall, especially given that at least one potential candidate apparently hopes to change Austin's anti-smoking ordinance in the opposite direction of the way ASH PAC wants to see it changed. Both Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher went through the arduous process of collecting more than 20,000 signatures apiece three years ago that allowed them to place their names on the ballot for a third term in office. Goodman has announced from the dais that she does not intend to run next spring. Slusher has not made a statement on the issue, but it seems unlikely that he would want to go through that process again. Candidates are lining up for both seats, although they cannot solicit campaign contributions until November 8.

An ordinance approved by voters in 1997 prohibits candidates from seeking or accepting contributions more than 180 days prior to an election. However, voters also approved a charter provision allowing for creation of small donor political committees that can accept contributions of up to $25 per person and give candidates up to $1,000—10 times what an individual is allowed to give under the Charter rules. In addition, the PAC must have had “at least one hundred (100) contributors during either the current or previous calendar year, (have) been in existence for at least six (6) months,” and never been controlled by a candidate. Rumor has it that a group is forming to collect signatures to put an anti-smoking ordinance on the ballot next spring. So, it looks like the smoking ordinance will have an early debut as an issue in the 2005 Council races.

Preservationists argue for grandfathering of tax abatements

This week’s Historic Preservation Task Force hearing on proposed revisions to the city's historic preservation ordinance did not produce a lot of surprises. The hearing took place in the dining room of the storied Kirby Hall School on W. 29th Street, with an audience of historic preservation experts and owners of historic homes — the people who would be most directly impacted by the ordinance, and who are most supportive of tax abatements. Most audience members were savvy enough to understand the push by Council to cut the cost of the program, and their comments during the 90-minute hearing were both muted and supportive of the task force’s efforts.

Given the audience’s general makeup, it was natural that a number of speakers supported the continued grandfathering of current tax exemptions. Grandfathering was one of the key issues the Council asked the task force to reconsider after the City Attorney's Office, in a legal opinion, stated that grandfathering would not provide the "equal and uniform taxation" set out by the state Constitution. Some homeowner-attorneys in the audience, like Michael Metteauer, argued that concerns over grandfathering were "misplaced" and nothing in case law would support an anti-grandfathering stance. Metteauer even quoted California case law, saying that grandfathering was understood to be a legal tool in setting property taxes.

Other arguments were probably more familiar to the audience. Hyde Park homeowner Susan Moffat argued in favor of historic districts, saying they could hold the line on speculators in East Austin. Joe Pinnelli of Heritage Austin argued that abatements produced more benefits than losses in increased property values. Sharon Fleming, who works at the Texas Historical Commission, noted the turnaround in preservation efforts of historic county courthouses after the state committed to shoulder a heavy portion of the projects' cost. And Hyde Park homeowner Jack Evins thanked the commission for tightening the guidelines on historic designation.

The proposals for adjusting the boundaries of historic districts did raise red flags for some. As one person told the task force, the standards for becoming a historic district are rigorous, while the guidelines for removing property within those boundaries remain vague. In earlier meetings, task force members discussed modeling the boundary setting on language from earlier ordinances dealing with districts.

Alan Marburger and Emily Thompson argued that tax abatements should kick in at 50 years of age. Under the revised proposal, a property could be deemed historic at 50 years but would not be eligible until it reached 75 years of age. Marburger and Thompson argued that for many buildings, preservation dollars are most critical between the ages of 50 and 75.

At least two speakers suggested increased penalties for arson or demolition of historic structures as a way to discourage destruction in the name of gentrification. In some cities, a homeowner who loses a structure through fire or illegal demolition must replace that structure with a home of equal value in a similar age range. Preservationist Kara Dotter said ordinances in other cities gave full recompense for the loss of historic structures.

And two speakers, including preservationist Terri Myers, urged the task force to recommend additional staffing for historic preservation. Myers said it was ridiculous to think Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky could keep up with both his current duties and the validation of historic district applications. Too many neighborhoods – Old West Austin, Heritage, Hyde Park, West University and Eastwoods, among others – are already considering applying for Historic District status. Assessing and monitoring applications from those neighborhoods would be a significant job, Myers said.

Chair Betty Baker quipped that, although Sadowsky was the only preservation officer, he did have the resources of his department at his disposal. Sadowsky might be a bit lonely, but is not alone in his efforts, Baker said. The Historic Preservation Task Force will meet again on Monday night.

Dealey chosen for national board . . . Mandy Dealey, who has served on the local board of Planned Parenthood for several years, has been invited to join the organization’s national board. Dealey—who has made it known that, come November, she’ll be campaigning for an open City Council seat—said she is excited about her new volunteer position . . . Are you historic? . . The Historic Preservation Task Force serenaded member Keith Jackson on this 50th birthday Tuesday night, leading to a lot of quips about aging, preservation and interior improvements on Jackson's "structure" . . . Downtown Austin Alliance awards … The Downtown Austin Alliance selected a new slate of officers at its annual meeting this week. Jeff Trigger, managing director of the Driskill Hotel, will serve as chair of the Board of Directors. Mayor Will Wynn served as chair of the DAA prior to running for office. Trigger, like Dealey, plans to run for the City Council next spring. The DAA also handed out its annual “ Impact Awards” for projects that helped improve the downtown area. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless was recognized as the Best Public Project; the new Hilton Hotel at the Austin Convention Center as the Best Private Project; the Frost Bank Tower was named Best Design; and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau received the special Chair Emeritus award for relocating its Visitors Center to 6th Street. The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association was also named Best Organization . . . Vote machine test . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir will be testing the county's eSlate voting system this morning in preparation for early voting and the November 2 presidential election. The test system is scheduled to begin at 10am 5501 Airport Boulevard. Interested citizens and candidates involved with ballot contests for Capitol Metro and the City of Lago Vista are invited to attend . . . No City Council meeting today . . . This is a non-meeting week for members of the City Council. City Hall seemed unnaturally quiet yesterday afternoon. Life will roar back to normal next week, with more zoning cases . . . Meetings . . . The Resource Management Commission will meet at 11am today at Cielo Center, Building 1, Suite 320 at 1250 S. Capital of TX Hwy. The Commission on Immigrant Affairs will meet at 6pm tonight at City Hall, Room 304.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top