Members of the Montgomery County Council plan to begin hearings in January to evaluate the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the county's largest agencies, which has operated without a permanent director for seven months.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), the new chairman of the council's Health and Human Services Committee, said his panel will examine the agency's performance in a number of areas, including early childhood education; mental health care; homelessness; and health care for the county's 80,000 uninsured residents.

Leventhal, who was elected to his first council term in November, said he is concerned that HHS has been operating without a director since Charles L. Short resigned in May. There are also vacancies in the senior management of three agency divisions: Early Childhood Services; Children, Youth and Family Services; and Adult Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Leventhal said it is imperative that HHS hire a director soon to blunt criticism that the agency is rudderless. "The perception is that there is no one to consult with at HHS because there are no permanent senior managers in place," he said.

For the time being, an interim director, Corinne Stevens, is in charge of the 1,437-employee agency, which has a $192 million annual operating budget.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is conducting a national search for a director, said he expects to name a permanent replacement for Short in a few weeks. "We want to make sure we have the right person," he said.

Duncan also praised HHS as one of the most innovative agencies in the country.

But HHS employees have told union leaders that they are overburdened by their caseloads and paperwork. Social workers and therapists who work with troubled families, abused children and the mentally ill have expressed the most pressing concerns.

Faith-based organizations have urged HHS to provide more resources for the poor, and civic groups say the agency needs a leader who can articulate a long-term vision.

"We need a director with some independence," said Cary Lamari, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a coalition of civic groups. "We're extremely troubled. . . . Lots of people say HHS is the worst-run agency in the county."

Leventhal said he wants an update on county residents who are without health insurance, many of them immigrants, and how the county can help them. He said he also will ask about care for the homeless. The county has 17 shelters, but advocates say more might be needed during cold-weather emergencies.

"The weather in the past two to three weeks has been frigid and dangerous, and the shelters are full and overflowing," said Becky Wagner, executive director of Community Ministry of Montgomery County, which represents 125 faith-based congregations. "The early cold winter will push the limits."

County officials say an estimated 1,200 homeless people live in Montgomery, and this year, more than 3,000 people have requested county assistance with housing.

Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said county government serves an increasingly diverse community -- Montgomery's population is now 40 percent minority -- and that residents' social service needs are greater.

"I want to learn how HHS is meeting the needs of the immigrant population," Perez said. "I want to know how HHS is addressing the needs of people who do not speak English."

But increasing funding for HHS -- or even maintaining current levels -- will be a major challenge. Montgomery is projecting a $300 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year, and Maryland, which provides significant funding for county initiatives, faces an estimated $1.2 billion budget gap in the current and coming fiscal years.

"I frankly don't see this year as a year of initiatives," said County Council President Michael L. Subin (D-At Large). "It's a year of survival."