Big Band-Aid over budget hole

September 9, 2010

Sharon Parks

It appears that House and Senate leadership and the administration have hammered out a budget deal that will avert a third state shutdown in four years.

I suppose we should all be relieved but somehow the whole thing leaves some of us feeling pretty frustrated. The final budget resolution seems to be a very large Band-Aid over a gaping hole.

Included among the budget “fixes” are proposals for tax amnesty ($61.8 million), state employee retirements ($60 million), use taxes on Health Maintenance Organizations ($377.3 million), various liquor reforms ($9 million), and a shift of $208 million from the School Aid Fund to the General Fund to avoid further cuts to community colleges.

The budget deal also includes more cuts in state spending—3 percent to all departments and reductions of $50 million each in the departments of Human Services, Community Health and Corrections.

It’s too early to know how $150 million will be squeezed out of these departments, on top of reductions that have been made since 2004 and continued in each subsequent year’s budget. (Notable exceptions are the optional Medicaid services that were eliminated in the 2010 budget but restored in the 2011 budget deal.)

Thank goodness for the federal Recovery Act money that is spread throughout the budget, and for the recent extenstion of the enhanced Medicaid match.  Those dollars helped avoid deeper cuts than are being made—for now. 

Finally, there is wide acknowledgement that the root of our problem extends beyond the current economic firestorm. Yet, what’s missing in this budget deal is any serious attempt to address the state’s structural deficit. It’s a “get out of Dodge” budget that dumps the problem squarely in the laps of the next administration and Legislature. 

Maybe the newcomers will be the breath of fresh air that is needed.  Maybe they will be full of good ideas, resolve and the leadership that is needed to turn Michigan in the right direction. Or, they may come to Lansing and waste valuable time as they learn their assumptions were faulty and their stereotypes untrue. 

I hope it’s not the latter. This train is headed for the cliff, as billions of federal Recovery Act funds end and our own state revenues continue to drop in response to the decline in personal income in Michigan.

— Sharon Parks

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State government unraveling?

July 6, 2010

Sharon Parks

State government is unraveling.  At least that was my impression after reading the subscriber-only Gongwer News Service report from Friday.  The newsletter included an extensive piece about Michigan’s progress under a court settlement related to foster care.

According to the article, the most recent official report on the lawsuit settlement stated, “thousands of children continue to linger in care without permanent families; too many youth continue to age out of care without health care or a permanent home; and too many children remain in unlicensed relative homes.”

The report said the Department of Human Services did not have enough staff to meet the caseload ratio standards required in the 2008 settlement.

A veteran child protective services worker told Gongwer that workers are “so stressed they regularly have breakdowns and you find them crying in the bathroom.”  Low job satisfaction has resulted in increased leaves for stress and higher turnover rates, which were already high prior to the lawsuit.

The Granholm administration has attempted to address this problem by recommending the restoration of 197 staff positions cut last year, the addition of 500 new staff and retaining the temporary staff brought in to help meet the requirements of the lawsuit.  Unfortunately the Department of Human Services Senate Appropriations Subcommittee is only willing to commit to 151 new child protective services workers.

Foster care is not the only area in which the Department of Human Services is not keeping up.  Another article in the same Gongwer issue notes that the average eligibility specialist carries a caseload of 700, again leading to burnout and frustration on the part of workers and clients.  Safety in local DHS office continues to be a concern yet DHS officials, according to Gongwer, say staffing increases are not likely since funds for staffing are stagnant.

There’s more…..A third article reports that financial audits released by the Auditor General show that several departments need to improve their internal controls to ensure they are correctly monitoring spending.  The Department of Natural Resources needs to properly account for and process reservation fees from state parks and forests.  The Department of Education was urged to take steps to protect its security and financial data, and to periodically monitor its internal controls over financial issues.  The State Police was urged to improve its internal controls over payroll processing.

These three articles all point to an increasingly common theme throughout state government—not enough workers to do the work, at least not in a way that ensures safety and well-being, as well as accountability for public tax dollars.

Just something to think about as another state retirement plan is discussed and candidates on the campaign trail promise smaller government.

— Sharon Parks


Adult services workers stretched thin

March 11, 2010

Judy Putnam

A rash of news stories about frustrated and angry people seeking help from understaffed state human services offices has revealed to us the strain of too few resources and too many people in need of help.

And a lawsuit over inadequate care for abused and neglected children in Michigan has forced new investments in the child welfare system.

But another story – this one of staff who investigate complaints of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation and who offer independent living help for elderly adults and those adults with disabilities  – was given by the Department of Human Services with pie charts and line graphs at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services earlier this week.

The bottom line is this: The 2002 early-out incentives for state employees permanently reduced the staff available to look out for the frail elderly and other vulnerable adults. (The department lost 2,800 experienced workers in that retirement wave.)

During that wave of retirements, the decision was made by the Engler administration to replace any worker dealing with children, but none of those workers dealing with adults.

The upshot? Michigan has 328 adult services workers, down from 541 adult services workers in 2000. That means caseloads have risen in the Independent Living Services program from 73 cases per worker to 175 cases per worker. Clients used to get four visits from a worker; that’s been cut to two.

Forty-three counties have just one worker and 22 counties have two workers.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic was this: Despite rising referrals of complaints of adults who have been abused or neglected (often by the very people who are entrusted with their care) the number of confirmed instances of mistreatment of vulnerable adults has held steady at around 9,500 per year.

The caseload for Adult Protective Services is 38 per worker; above the national average of 25 cases per worker, the committee was told.

Unfortunately the need for investigations into complaints of elder abuse will only grow as Michigan’s population ages.

Let’s face it – as with caregivers of children, those who live with frail adults are often stressed to the maximum and lash out at very vulnerable people. And as with our children, we must offer protection to those who are unable to protect themselves.

The PowerPoint given by the department ended with a quote from Pearl Buck: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.’’

— Judy Putnam