Monday, August 09, 2010

Delving deeper into budget cuts

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn released a new round of budget cuts last week with no fanfare and little detail. The plan, displayed on a website dedicated to the budget, gives a one-page-per-agency description of which areas will be cut. It lists some grants and contains some rather cryptic descriptions. That is perhaps due in part to the fact that cuts to education and social services are unpopular, and details are still being worked out. The last thing Quinn’s administration wants to do is get people up in arms about specifics, only to see them change during the negotiation process.

However, the fiscal year is already a month old, and elections are only a few months away. School districts, local governments, social service providers, universities, community colleges and voters need to know the potential impacts of reductions to plan their own budgets and, in the case of voters, help them decide whom they want to represent them in the years to come as Illinois tries to climb out of this financial crisis.

In this spirit, I decided to take each breakdown of agency cuts and try to get more details on what the targeted areas are, such as what certain grants are used for or who benefits from certain programs. I will post my findings in the coming weeks. I expect to hit some dead ends because interested parties are often hesitant to talk about details for fear of throwing off negotiations. If I can’t get the details, I will at least let you know my process. And things will likely change as negotiations proceed and new developments come in, such as the possibility of more federal funding. If you have comments or suggestions, I would love to hear them.

First up: the Department of Child and Family Services, which faced a $6 million reduction in the first round of cuts Quinn proposed last month. That number jumped up to $34.5 million in the new plan released last week.


Proposed drastic cuts to the Department of Child and Family Services budget last year landed the state in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union, and it could happen again this year.

The $34.5 million in cuts that Quinn proposed last week are not nearly as deep as the $460 million reduction he suggested as part of last year's “doomsday” budget, which was never enacted. However, it is unclear whether the new funding levels would cause the agency to break a court order.

Last year’s lawsuit was based on a settlement the state reached with the American Civil Liberties Union after a 1988 lawsuit that ushered in sweeping reforms to the way the agency does business. “Many of the standards that are in that consent decree are due to the cooperation between the plaintiff and the agency itself. … Many of those standards are above the national norms,” said Kendall Marlowe, a DCFS spokesperson.

The consent decree sets standards of care, such as on staffing levels, child-to-caseworker ratios and required programs. The ACLU is now the court-ordered watchdog in charge of making sure DCFS lives up to the settlement. While the decree contains no required funding level, DCFS is supposed to run its budget by the ACLU, so that organization can determine whether the funding is enough to meet the requirements.

Marlowe said the state would be able to meet its commitments in the consent decree with the new budget cuts.

However, ACLU associate legal director Benjamin Wolf is not sure. He said his organization approved the original $6 million in cuts after determining that the agency would be able to live up to the consent decree after the reduction. But it has not figured out whether DCFS will be able to make the grade under the new proposal, which the agency had yet to discuss with the ACLU as of last Thursday.

Wolf added that some time is still available for the two groups to get together to try to sort things out, since DCFS plans to avoid cutting staff who deal directly with children. “There is nothing in that plan which would endanger the health and safety of children next week,” he said.

Here’s the breakdown of Quinn's proposed cuts, according to Marlowe (Italics are pulled directly from Quinn’s proposal):

($4.3M) - Operations Lump Sum
Maintains budgeted headcount by filling vacant positions over a longer period of time and moving some operations funding from the General Revenue Fund to the agency’s Children’s Services Fund.

Cuts to operations costs will be realized by holding off on filling 139 positions. The department plans to hire for no more than a quarter of the jobs this year and fill the rest next year. Marlowe says these are office positions, such as administrative assistants and clerical workers, not “front line staff, ” such as caseworkers, who work directly with children and families.

The Children Service’s Fund has money in it from federal matching programs, so spending would be shifted away from state resources.

($30.2M) - Grants Lump Sum
Reestimate of Institution & Group Home demand
Reduces indirect contracts
Increases revenue opportunities & improves Federal claiming

Marlowe said DCFS makes projections for how many children may need to spend time in institutions or group homes, and those assessments can be trimmed back. “There is no way to know that in certain for advance, so you have to do projections.”

He added that DCFS has been working on a shift to community-based treatment and away from institutionalization, so reducing the number of kids going into such homes is in step with the current treatment philosophy.

Wolfe said that is one of the aspects of the cuts that he is most concerned about. However, Marlowe said children would not be turned away. “If the kid needs help and the kid needs to be placed in a group home, we’re going to place him in the group home.”

According to Marlowe, reducing indirect contracts would mean cutting down on consultants, such as hiring a child psychologist not employed by DCFS to help with a specific case. He said it would not include any reduction in payments to foster families, residential services providers or group homes.

The cuts would also mean a cut to funding for research the agency uses to pinpoint the best methods to help the kids it serves, as well as assess the effectiveness of its own efforts.

Marlowe says prolonged cuts to research could damage the agency in the long run. “Part of why we have gotten better at delivering service to children is because we have developed this research base. … Some of the background work we are doing now could benefits kids five [or] 10 years down the road.”

He added that the agency has made great strides to capture as much federal funding as possible through what he says are often complicated reimbursement programs.


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