In the next few weeks the Arlington County Board will begin its annual exercise of combining through the county's proposed $150 million budget for the year beginning July 1. One of the few controversial proposals in the fiscally austere budget submitted by County Manager W. Vernon Ford is one that would eliminate Arlington's round-the-clock Information and Referral Service and thereby save the county $19,787.
Last month when Ford unveiled his budget, which is presented in shopping list form with options for cuts and additions, he was asked if it contained any cuts in the county's Department of Human Resources.
Ford grimaced and mentioned the possible cut of the four-member referral service team, which last year handled more than 22,000 inquiries ranging from where to pay a water bill to where to get emergency food. Also included in the Refferal Service is a volunteer coordinator who in 1976 placed 600 volunteers in a variety of community agencies.
It was a cut, Ford indicated, that he was reluctant to include but about which he had no choice. The County Board, in preparing to consider its third zero-based budget, told Ford the budget must contain options for possible cuts in all departments. A final budget is scheduled for adoption by the board May 13.
Why did Ford include the referral service, particularly when other county officials say that without it their departments would be flooded with calls for information and assistence?
"It's simple," said Barbara Glaser, director of the social services division which oversees the referral service. "This is the only thing we now do in this division that isn't mandated by law."
Three of the five County Board members said that although they hadn't studied the budget, they thought it unlikely that the service would be cut. But Board Member Joseph S. Wholey, who exerts great influence on the budget process, said, "I think everything should be looked at. The whole spirit of our approach is to examine what will be lost if a cut is made."
Glaser noted that 75 percent of the service's budget comes from state and federal funds, but that its existence is contingent on matching funds from the county.
Social service officials said that the volume of calls dealing with unemployment counseling and Arlington's increasing population of foreign-born and elderly residents has risen steadily in recent years. Officials say that 15 percent of all calls now involve crisis intervention; many are from people who are in immediate need of medical care, food, shelter or transportation and don't know where else to turn.
John Smucker is coordinator of the referral service, which was first in Northern Virginia. "Everybody gives information and referral," said Smucker.
"But when you know that a person isn't able to make an appointment for himself or herself or when you sense that someone can't follow through, we do the follow-up. We don't say 'Why the hell haven't you called so and so,' but we try to discover whether another approach would work," he said.
Of the 11,600 calls the referral service received last year, about 8,000 were request for information that required no follow-up, Smucker said.
In addition to calls ranging from requests about where to pay a water bill to handling callers who threaten to commit suicide ("those sell books but they are rare," Smucker said) the referral service receives calls from other social service agencies.
"We have at our fingertips information that no other agency has," said Smucker, who said that his "hand-operated Rolodex" contains information on 800 services and agencies.
"The loss of a centralized resource file will be tremendous if the board decides to cut (the referral service)," Glaser said.
However, Barbara Nnoka of the Red Cross isn't so sure. Nnoka said her office handles about 30 calls for emergency assistance per month. "The County Board has a right to look at I&R critically," Nnoka said, to determine whether it serves individual callers as well as Arlington's 20 public and private social service agencies.
"The information they have can be kept up by a volunteer," she continued. "In terms of where to find food, furniture, etc., there's nothing they can tell me that I don't already know.And they can't solve the hard problems any better than we can."
Spokesmen for several other agencies say they are organizing a lobbying campaign to oppose the potential cut. Some say the existence of a centralized referral service has made it easier for people in need of help to get it.
Smucker and Glaser noted a final irony in the proposed cut. In 1976 Gov. Mills Godwin ordered the state's Department of Welfare to organize a statewide information and referral network.
"We're being put up to be chopped just as the state is coming up with a statewide program," said Glaser.