The District's mental health receiver, already facing a $6.3 million shortfall this fiscal year, is considering a furlough for 2,100 employees for as many as nine days beginning in January.
Under the plan, obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, every commission employee would be given a day off without pay one day each month for at least the first nine months of 2000, saving the city $3.2 million. All planned pay raises also would be delayed.
Scott H. Nelson, the receiver, attributed the projected shortfall to "unanticipated expenditures"--including overtime and retroactive pay--and the failure to receive as much funding as requested from Congress. "We need to tighten our belts some in the personnel area," Nelson said.
Mental health advocates, who have complained that the commission is performing far worse in receivership than it did while under city control, reacted with alarm at the lastest news and said furloughs would be another burden on an already burdened and neglected population.
"It's outrageous when we look at what they're spending money on," said Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "They spend money on rent for fancy offices and raises for top staff, but they are not spending money ensuring that people get access to new medication they need."
Fugere went on to say: "Staff on this agency needs to be on the front lines. What are they going to say? 'I'm sorry, you can't have a crisis today because our staff need to be furloughed.' "
Stephen Fitzgerald, president of a union representing psychologists at the mental health commission, said the membership will fight the furlough. "It wasn't well received," Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist, said of the plan. "Nothing could demoralize workers more."
Two months into the new fiscal year, the commission is projecting a $6.3 million shortfall, out of a total budget of $204 million. About $4.5 million of the shortfall is in personnel costs. According to the commission's estimates, each furlough day would save $364,000.
Nelson, a psychiatrist who is paid $224,620 a year and was appointed two years ago, has defended his tenure, saying he has improved the performance of the commission. Yesterday, he said he is not interested in reducing staff, but he warned that a furlough or some other way to cut personnel costs may be needed to balance the budget. A final decision will be made early next year.
"It's unfortunate we have to take this action," Nelson said. "I'm sorry our budget didn't get approved as proposed."
The furlough plan comes two months after frustrated advocates packed a federal courtroom and angrily complained of a lack of services. At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Aubrey F. Robinson Jr., advocates said the city has more mentally ill and homeless people out on the streets than ever before, that group homes for the mentally ill are poorly run and neglected and that treatment is difficult to get.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said last month that he planned to appoint a cabinet-level administrator to try to resolve problems in the four D.C. agencies run by court-appointed receivers, including the Commission on Mental Health, and guide those agencies back to city control.
Yesterday, Williams appointed Grace M. Lopes as his special counsel for "receiverships and institutional reform litigation." She has served as a special master for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and special master for the U.S. District Court for Maryland. She was also executive director of the D.C. Prisoners Legal Service Project, an inmate advocacy group.