The Prince George's County Hotline, a state-funded telephone referral service for people in emotional distress that was abruptly dropped from the state's budget late last year, was rescued with a $100,000 contibution from the Pallottine fathers only hours after the Hotline's executive board decided the service would have to be stopped.
The hotline received official notice in late December that it would get only $49,000 of its requested $108,000 for the fiscal year that began last July 1. County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan turned down a request for emergency funding, and money ran out early this month.
The staff worked without pay while the Hotline sought private funds, but the total by last Monday was only $3,000. Rick Rutherford, director of the service, said they needed $10,000 to get favorable consideration for matching funds from the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation.
The board of directors met Monday night and decided to close down while they tried to raise money to start operations again this July for the new fiscal year. Tuesday morning the Pallottines, a Roman Catholic order, came through with a contribution of $10,000.
Montgomery County's Hotline, run by the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, had similar problems, losing half its requested $57,000 funding for the current year. It was told to expect no state aid next year. The county stepped in with $21,500 to carry Hotline through June. The Mental Health Association, a private, nonprofit United Way agency, is making up the difference.
The Prince George's service handles about 15,000 calls a year and has a staff of one full-time and 17 part-time workers. Rutherford said the Prince George's Hotline's expenses are greater than those of its counterpart in Montgomery County because it is an incorporated organization and must pay full rent for office space. The Hotline has been funded 100 percent by the state. The Montgomery County Hotline receives free office space from the Mental Health Association as well as $11,640 toward their $74,000 annual budget.
"I have no problem with the state, the county and everybody else insisting we be funded with other than government money," Rutherford said. "I agree with that. But it takes time to convert from one funding source to another. My gripe is that the county in particular would not see their way clear to provide bridge funding until we could become totally self-sufficient."
"When drugs are a big problem, all the monies go to drugs. When pregnancies are a problem, all the monies go to pregnancies. Buy they're going to lose sight of prevention and ultimately prevention is going to keep mental health costs from skyrocketing," said Montgomery County Hotline Director Harriet Guttenberg.
Guttenberg supervises a staff of 80 persons, two-thirds of them volunteers, who work in four-hour shifts around the clock listening to people who are depressed, lonely, emotionally disturbed, physically abused or have any one of 32 different types of problems that Hotline handles. Many of the callers only need someone to listen, she said. Others have specific requests for information about a clinic or community service, and Hotline aides are able to provide them with phone numbers and directions.
Hotline gets its largest number of calls from people who are in emotional distress or have mental health problems, but in the past several years, an increasing number of callers have reported instances of child abuse -- either in their own families or in a neighbor's, Guttenberg said.
Some of the reasons Mental Hygiene Administration officials give for cutting the service are the same reasons why Guttenberg feels it's important to continue the Hotline.
"We're trying to focus on using our dollars on supporting services to keep individuals out of state institutions," said Sandy Bienen, assistant director of the Mental Hygiene Administration.
"But Hotline should be seen as a support service," Guttenberg said. "For many people, it's a way to help them hang in there while they adjust."
Local administrators complained that the state didn't notify them of the funding cut for the current year until after the local budget process had been concluded.
"It's really dirty pool. I mean, people are cutting everywhere, but you should let them know sooner," said Charles Short of the Department of Family Resources, which administers the state funds.
"I feel very badly about that," said Bienen. "Timing was an issue. We didn't know until later in our grant process that we would have inadequate money."
Prince George's and Montgomery county government officials have discussed the possibility of combining the two services and are asking their respective Hotlines for cost estimates for running a joint service.
"People in distress don't care where the Hotline is located or who is running it, as long as they have a number that's not long-distance. It seems somewhat duplicative to have many offices when all you're talking about is providing a service through a telephone," Short said.