Counties Face Cuts In Social Services

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006

Arlington and Fairfax counties could lose millions of federal dollars for human service programs after they and many other localities throughout the state misused foster care funds, triggering a federal investigation, officials said.

Arlington will be hit harder than Fairfax, officials said, losing as much as $15 million the county had hoped to spend on programs that provide supportive housing for the mentally disabled and on a new residential home for disabled seniors. About 30 county jobs are in jeopardy. Fairfax could lose about $2 million a year, officials said.

A federal audit showed that cities and counties throughout Virginia were improperly diverting federal funds intended for foster care to similar but broader programs such as counseling and parent education. State and federal officials dickered for months after the audit was released, and on May 31 the two sides reached a settlement under which Virginia will be docked $42 million in federal money.

The news of the funding cuts has spread quickly among advocates for the disabled in Northern Virginia, as Arlington prepares this month to trim $5.5 million out of its social services budget for the coming year to make up for the shortfall.

"It's going to get really gruesome really quickly. This is huge," said Nancy Mercer, the executive director of the Arc of Northern Virginia, an advocacy group for the disabled. "Families will suffer. People aren't getting the help they need now. . . . It's a nightmare. I can't believe it."

Arlington Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said the probable loss of funds, about 5 percent of the county's $100 million social services budget, is serious but not dire.

"It's significant but not catastrophic," Allgeier said.

Unlike Arlington, Fairfax spent its money mostly on administrative costs instead of other aid programs, so officials said they will not have to cut jobs or services to make up their gap.

The Virginia localities' predicament dates to the late 1990s, when officials in the administration of then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III traveled the state encouraging jurisdictions to set up plans to push for more money from the federal government for social service programs in the form of reimbursements.

Arlington was by far the most aggressive county in pushing for reimbursements, officials said. Over the years, it billed or was slated to bill the federal government $38 million in administrative costs for food stamps and other programs. It then used the money it got back from the federal government on an array of services for needy residents.

Officials started a housing program that gave mentally disabled residents affordable apartments where they could live on their own with the help of counselor visits. The program, which has 29 residents and a lengthy waiting list, had hoped to add more than 400 spaces.

Officials also spent $2.5 million to buy a vacant senior home that they hoped to spruce up for the disabled elderly. And they unveiled -- with great fanfare -- an expanded day-care program for seniors this year.

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