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Health Services tells county it needs more staff

Monday, August 18, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The Travis County’s Health and Human Services Department asked for an additional $313,000 for six full-time employees to its Fiscal Year 2015 budget Friday, the last day of budget hearings. Travis County Commissioners spent last week discussing requests for additional program and staffing funds that the Planning and Budget Office did not include in next year’s $901 million preliminary budget.

The Family Support Services program under Health and Human Services is in need of more full-time staff to help alleviate the public’s wait list for services, Division Director Jim Lehrman said.

The program provides basic needs assistance to qualifying Travis County residents through seven different community centers: two within Austin city limits and five in more rural areas of the county. The 30 basic needs caseworkers and five office support staff working at the centers provide emergency financial assistance to residents who need help with rent, mortgage payments, burial services and utilities.

Each center has its own social worker to provide clinical case management services for those who need help with finding employment, housing, mental health care and medical care. Case workers also provide crisis intervention, youth services, counseling for families and individuals and help with applying for medical benefits.

Community centers were able to provide 894 food vouchers to county residents in the 2013 fiscal year. They provided 23,939 pantry items, 346 prescriptions, 155 burial services and 1,870 bus passes. The program also paid 21,881 utility bills and helped with rent 8,218 times. The centers provide services for approximately 85 people a day, but there are more than 2,500 on the wait list.

While the program has enough federal grant funding through the Community Development Block Grant to serve the population in need, Lehrman said there are not enough staff members to take on the growing number of service requests.

Lehrman said the program is using non-staff options to help shorten the wait list, such as online request forms, an automated check-in system, in-house computers for clients to use to independently find available services and a more up-to-date website and telephone system. But it’s not enough, Lehrman said.

“Originally this program was set up to be an emergency assistance program, and we’ve moved away from that, unfortunately,” Lehrman said. “The demand for services are greater than what we can open our doors to.”

An estimated 110 people move to Austin each day, baby boomers are getting older and less agile, and there is an increasing level of poverty in the county, Lehrman said.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty asked how the county could help alleviate some of the caseloads and need for services: “Is it just sheer dollars?”

The answer, Lehrman said, is whatever can be done to eradicate poverty. “It’s multifaceted. It’s jobs. It’s education. It’s how do we keep kids in school? How do we keep them out of the juvenile justice system? There’s no one silver bullet,” he said. “We do not have enough bodies to see clients on a daily basis.”

Adding staff to the community centers would help reduce the numbers of needy citizens on the waitlist as well as the long wait times for services, which can range from eight to 20 weeks.

Health and Human Services is requesting a total of $313,944 be added to their FY 2015 budget. Lehrman said the program needs one full-time eligibility caseworker for $54,440 and three office support staff for a total of $167,932.

Lehrman said the program also needs $73,006 for one burial caseworker. Deceased people are staying in funeral homes longer because the one current burial caseworker is backlogged with requests, he said. This has been problematic for some of the funeral homes that don’t have in-house refrigeration and contract it out.

Health and Human Services requested the funding back in May, but the Planning and Budget Office did not recommend adding funds, instead asking most departments with staffing needs to figure it out internally with recommended funds.

Health and Human Services Director Sherri Fleming said she and Lehrman would not have come forward during the budget hearings to request funds if it were not crucial to the program’s function.

“We’re doing everything we can do with what we have in terms of resources,” Fleming said. “These are very specialized important staff to us, the work that they do is very important … in terms of the services that are delivered to your constituents.”

But Daugherty and Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis reminded the court and the department that the tax rate was set this year for a reason: the recent outcry over rising property taxes and an increasingly expensive housing market.

Daugherty suggested Health and Human Services carefully go over its preliminary budget allotment and decide which funding could be moved to fund the needed staff.

Davis said constituents are concerned with the legitimacy of affordability. “We must think out of the box to do these things because the constituency is hollering and screaming about it,” he said.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd said the budget could be more flexible during the upcoming markup session. The budget limitation was set, he said, but now there is new knowledge of program needs across all departments.

“What we know now, once you go through these hearings, is different. That’s why we go through this process,” Todd said. “I’m not worried about exceeding that amount if I see it with a knowledge base the average Joe Blow would agree with. It’s tough to make these calls in the middle of it, but that’s what we’ve got to do: make decisions even though they may differ based on what we made earlier because of new information that’s come across this table.”

Now that budget hearings are over, the Commissioners Court is waiting on the certified tax roll to come in from the Travis Central Appraisal District before it can set the required tax on Sept. 1. From Sept. 3 through Sept. 5, the Commissioners will “mark up” or adjust the preliminary budget as they see fit before filing next year’s proposed budget.

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