Uproar follows call to cut

Clark County officials are rejecting the governor’s request to propose budget cuts to their child welfare and juvenile justice divisions.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid expressed frustration that Gov. Jim Gibbons recommended cutting from two programs designed to help children without first discussing other potential budget reductions with county representatives.

“This is an extraordinary thing in many ways,” Reid said Monday. “We don’t want to fight with the governor; we want a conversation. We’re saying, ‘Time out. We don’t want to play this game. We want to start over and talk about what the rules are.'”

Last week, Gibbons directed state Department of Health and Human Services Director Mike Willden to cut 5 percent from his two-year budget. Willden asked the county to submit potential budget reductions from the Department of Family Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice Services.

“The request of them was simply, ‘If a 5 percent cut has to be made, where would you make it?'” Willden said Monday. “They have chosen not to participate, so I will make those decisions without their participation.”

Willden said the proposed budget cuts are due to the governor by Monday.

Reid, Department of Family Services Director Tom Morton and Juvenile Justice Services Director Cherlyn Townsend each fired off letters to Gibbons three days after he made public his call for budget cut proposals. The letters were co-signed by County Manager Virginia Valentine.

Gibbons’ office did not return the Review-Journal’s phone calls seeking comment on the matter Monday.

Reid said he is concerned that if the county brought numbers to the table, it might imply the county has no objection to the budget cuts. That is a message Reid said he has no intention of delivering to the governor, who is looking for $3.5 million in cuts over the current biennium.

“Most certainly a government priority should be protecting the most vulnerable children in our community,” he said. “If we are going to exclude certain things from the chopping block, this should be one.”

Morton is in the midst of his Futures Plan, a comprehensive project to address the needs of child protective services and in-home services. The Legislature approved funding for 119 positions for Future Plans in 2006.

Last year, lawmakers approved 85 additional positions to improve foster care and adoption services. With the proposed budget cuts, 45 of the new jobs will be filled.

In his letter to Gibbons, Morton said he was “heartened” by the governor’s testimony before the Assembly on Health and Human Services Committee.

“Certainly, one of the most essential services of government is to safeguard children who cannot adequately protect themselves from harm,” Morton quoted Gibbons as saying on March 7. “As political leaders, it is our duty to provide the best care possible for children who, through no fault of their own, come under the care of the child welfare system.”

Morton said Monday that foster care managers in Clark County have a “dangerously high” level of 39 cases each. National standards call for 12 to 15 children per case manager, according to Morton’s letter. Last year, the Legislature approved 26 case manager positions.

If the positions are taken away, the caseloads will continue to overwhelm managers and impede their ability to work with children and their families to find solutions, Morton said.

“There are two major consequences,” Morton said. “Kids remain in the system longer without achieving permanency and, more problematic, they don’t receive the same level of service from case managers. There is an increased risk of being harmed again.”

Morton’s department is working with the National Center for Youth Law, which filed a lawsuit alleging that welfare agencies are jeopardizing the safety of children in their custody.

The center has provided a list of recommendations that the county is working toward carrying out.

Morton said the consequences of not filling positions could have huge financial implications if the county loses the lawsuit.

Also, the state Division of Child and Family Services expects to lose 24,000 juvenile detention beds in the state’s three institutions. Clark County probably will take in 46 additional youth offenders each day.

Townsend said every dollar the state saves from closing juvenile detention units costs Clark County taxpayers $2.40.

“Given the current revenue projections in Clark County, I do not expect that we can absorb this additional cost shift from the state to the county,” she wrote in her letter to Gibbons.

Willden said that he understood the concerns but that he simply had asked the county to submit proposed cuts. It is not certain that the two programs will suffer a 5 percent cuts, he said.

Willden’s target is to cut $1.7 million from the $33 million the state will provide the county’s Family Services Department in 2008. In 2009, the target is $1.9 million from the $39 million that had been budgeted for Clark County.

The state provides $1.7 million to statewide juvenile justice programs. Willden said the counties collectively were asked to submit proposals that would slice $84,000 from that budget.

“We’re looking for recommendations and input,” he said. “Washoe County submitted recommendations, Clark didn’t. I’m disappointed; frustrated, but we will make our decisions on what’s best for Clark County absent their management team.”

And it is unlikely the county will change its position, Reid said.

“The State of Nevada has historically underfunded services to our most vulnerable citizens, including youth involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system and indigent and uninsured patients seeking medical care,” Reid said. “These systems cannot afford further reductions in funding.”

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