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Health/human services budget facing severe cuts in FY2012

Friday, July 8, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The next fiscal year is shaping up to be a tough one for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. Faced with significant reductions in the amount of grant money available from the state and federal governments, and a Council mandate to reduce their budget by 5 percent, HHS officials are warning that FY2012 will most likely see substantial reductions in vital services.

 

During a recent presentation, HHS Acting Director Shannon Jones told City Council that the city will need to reduce across the department’s service spectrum. For example, a significant portion of the department’s core public health functions – including public health emergency preparedness – are funded largely through state and federal grants. In total, 31.8 percent of the department’s budget is funded by grants.

 

Anticipated drops in the amount of available grant funding, Jones said, will significantly impact the department’s “key functionalities in epidemiology, toxicology, and disease surveillance, all areas in our department that will be significantly impacted.”

 

“Loss of this funding would result in the lack of our ability to investigate disease outbreaks, as well as our ability to respond to public health emergencies,” said Jones.

 

Jones also said 11 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs) in emergency preparedness could be on the chopping block. The department’s tuberculosis treatment and immunization programs could also face deep cuts.

 

Also likely to suffer is the department’s ability to deal with the city’s homeless and impoverished populations. The state-funded Homeless Housing Service Program currently funds 46 permanent supportive housing units (PSH) in the city and partial operational funds for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). The department is facing cuts of up to $860,000 for PSH and $138,000 for the ARCH.

 

In addition to the specter of diminished grant funding, HHS is facing a Council mandate that all city departments cut their budgets for FY2012 by 5 percent. For HHS, that means approximately $2 million.

 

Jones listed more than 15 potential budget reductions staff has considered to reach that number. They included eliminating HIV rapid testing, eliminating funding currently allocated for social service planning contracts, and eliminating funding for offsite animal adoptions. At their last meeting, Council unanimously approved resolutions directing the city manager to negotiate social service contracts and find a partner to help city staff with offsite adoptions.

 

“What this refers to is we’re going to have to do some downsizing, some focusing in on particular services, and those are the things we anticipate doing and are going to be doing,” said Jones.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman said that before Council can make a decision about the HHS budget, staff will have to provide information beyond money and FTEs and explain exactly how many citizens will be affected by reductions in services.

 

“What number of people currently receiving services would not receive services, or what would be the reduction the quality of services those people would receive or the intensity of the services?” Spelman asked. “What matters to us particularly is not the money or the FTEs but what the experience is for our citizens. What’s the change in their life going to be? That should be the lingua franca of these conversations, I think.”

 

Jones said he and his staff would get Council that information. In the meantime, according to Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras, staff is coming up with different strategies to deal with the anticipated budget reduction.

 

“Staff is looking at the possibility of reduced hours at some neighborhood centers and certain facilities with limited staff,” Lumbreras told the Council. “We’re certainly strategizing and thinking of ways we can do that, understanding the challenges the department is facing. We’re certainly working through those scenarios.”

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