By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
JOHNSTOWN -- The Fulton County Board of Supervisors voted this week to grant a Department of Social Services request for an additional $75,000 to continue funding its child care program for working families through the end of the year.
Citing a budget shortfall, DSS was forced to discontinue payments to participating child care providers for approximately 140 working families last month pending its last minute appeal to the board.
The non-mandated program is federally funded but administered to participating counties through a state block grant.
According to DSS Commissioner Sheryda Cooper, the budget shortfall was the result of an unforeseen reduction in the state allocation that county funds were unable to cover.
Though the additional funds granted by the board will cover county expenditures and allows the department to reinstate payments for some families, the reduced state allocation precludes it from renewing services to all of the families affected.
The problem, says Cooper, is that it is nearly impossible to project budget shortfalls when coordinating the fiscal years of three separate governments: federal, state and county.
While the county's yearly budget is drafted and approved by early December for the following year, the state allocation for social services is not known until May or June, said Cooper.
"That's the problem, the way the allocation comes out," said Cooper. "You're spending money before you even know what you have and that has to do with the state budget."
Cooper said her department is currently in the process of calculating how many families will be able to once again receive child care services with the additional funding, a number that is dependent, in part, on the cost of the service and the number of children in the family.
"We are working that out and it is something that will have to be continually adjusted," said Cooper. "But it is still the case that we won't be able to open everybody back up, where we won't have enough money. We will overspend the allocation if we do."
According to Cooper, families will be prioritized based on the methodology employed in the department's consolidated services plan to determine which ones will be allowed to return to the programs. The remainder, said Cooper, will be placed on a waiting list.
"We'll open up the families according to the process that we've set out up to a certain figure amount and then we'll have a waiting list," said Cooper.
The federally funded program includes both mandated and non-mandated services, but only families receiving non-mandated services were affected by the lapse in funding.
"Guaranteed child care takes precedence," said Cooper. Families guaranteed care include those receiving temporary assistance who are participating in work required activities as a result of the employment program, those who receive child care in lieu of temporary assistance for three out of six months and who meet certain eligibility requirements and families who choose child care in place of temporary assistance.
"We must provide for them first, before working families," said Cooper. "And then, if there is money left, than we bring people on in the working category."
The decision by the board to sanction the additional funding was not without it's detractors, with several supervisors questioning how to justify continuing to fund non-mandated social service programs during a period of financial crisis for the county.
Broadalbin town Supervisor Joe DiGiacomo was one of several dissenting votes, and the only of which when the resolution was passed through the social services committee.
"You know the predicament we're in. You've seen the numbers. And when we're throwing money away like that, it's crazy," said DiGiacomo. "Out of the $800,000 for the baby-sitting program, only about $120,000 is mandated. It's ridiculous."
Johnstown Supervisor Richard Handy, who originally supported the measure, said he had since learned just how much day care providers are paid by social services for families in the program, which, in some cases, nears $200 per week. He also said that he heard about several providers that deliberately take less than their standard rates, sometimes half of what social services would pay, in order to aid families struggling to work without having to rely on the system.
"No way in hell can I support this with the way it's written, now," Handy said to the board.
For Northampton town Supervisor Linda Kemper, voting against the measure was the only option.
"One of the biggest issues I have is we're looking at cutting all these other programs to try to stay within the budget. You have to learn to live within you're budget," said Kemper. "If you have run out of money because you spent over the amount you anticipated in this, than obviously you are doing way too much. They're giving much more benefits out than probably they should be."
Kemper said she couldn't imagine how the board could even consider funding the child care program after listening to the Fulton County residents who spoke openly on Monday about the need to save the sheriff's road patrol, most of whom proposed to do so at the expense of social service programs and were angered to learn just how much was mandated by the state.
"We had no sooner listened to a good two hours of people complaining about what we were talking about cutting and being criticized by all these people and then they jump up and say we need to give this money to them," said Kemper. "I can't keep supporting non-mandated. When they run out of money, they run out of money. Then if they have to have a thirty or a sixty day lapse in it then I'm sorry that's how it's gotta be. Everybody has to learn to live within their means."
"The whole system is completely flawed," she added. "If they have spent so much more on child care, than I'm sorry. We can't keep digging into this big giant bucket full of money that we don't have. Money gone, program gone. Plain and simple."
Still, others advocated for the resolution, arguing that it's depended on by struggling families who are working and trying desperately to get ahead.
"If we don't fund this now, we're going to put a lot of people in the position of having to find day care on short notice," said Gloversville Supervisor Richard Ottalagano.
"If you can keep one person off the rolls ...," said Johnstown Supervisor John Callery.
Gloversville Supervisor Michael Rooney agreed, saying "There's a return on this investment."
The bigger issue for several of those voting "no" on Monday, was whether the programs should continue to exist at all. Though child care for working families is federally supported, with money designated specifically for that program, participation in it is at the discretion of the counties and some were definitely supportive of the suggestion that Fulton County opt-out.
"I think it sends a message if we don't take that money," said DiGiacomo.
"We are being forced to make very difficult decisions every single day," said Kemper. "We are being forced to make choices between necessary services and the mandates that we're being forced to pay, and until the state gives us mandate relief, than that's what we have to look at. These people need to be notified that they are no longer getting all these extras."
"If we don't take this then someone else will," argued Johnstown Supervisor Michael Kinowski on Monday. "Yeah, we don't have to fund it, but it's helping people who are working and trying to support a family."
According to Cooper, the $75,000 was transferred from various other accounts in the social services budget to accommodate for the shortfall and the money will be reimbursed when the next state allocation is received in the spring.