Howard County's social service providers worry that the next Maryland budget will slash assistance for the needy even though, they argue, state agencies already are stretched thin. They're looking for answers from the top, when Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe talks to providers next week in Columbia.

"I want to see what's coming down the pike," said Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of Howard's Community Action Council, a longtime anti-poverty agency. "Are we going to be left to fend for ourselves?"

McCabe is scheduled to speak Wednesday before the Association of Community Services (ACS), a 41-year-old network of human service providers, government agencies and citizen advocates. His appearance follows reports that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has asked state agencies to think about ways to pare 12 percent from their current allocations. McCabe's agency oversees state programs for the poor and victims of abuse that operate through local Department of Social Services offices.

"All the departments are looking at what we can do to refocus on our core missions," said Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources. "We don't know what's going to happen. Nothing at all has been decided."

Nevertheless, Anne Towne, ACS executive director, said human services providers fret that the Ehrlich administration appears willing to consider further cuts in "a budget that's already been pretty tightly squeezed."

A 12 percent cut for the local social services departments "can only mean that programs are diminished," she said. "There's nothing else left in that budget that wouldn't directly affect services to residents."

McCabe, a former state senator from Howard, generally is well regarded on his home turf. But the Clarksville resident drew criticism this summer when he fired a veteran assistant director at the local social services office and appointed an interim director at the same office without much input from county officials.

Local social service providers still bemoan state cuts totaling $1.36 million last year. The Community Action Council took one of the biggest hits, losing $500,000 in state funds that paid for child care at the council's Head Start centers in Ellicott City and Columbia.

"To cut out the child care piece was horrendous," said Moore. "When you cut those resources off, people are helpless."

Mike Clark, coordinator of Christ Church Link, a faith-based information and referral service, estimated that his operation is fielding 10 percent more calls than last year from people facing eviction from their homes or utility turnoffs.

"We need to ask what is the philosophy [of the Ehrlich administration] in helping the poor," Clark said. "I'm not sure it's one of the highest priorities."

Maryland's Human Resources Department has tried to keep the impact of state budget cuts concentrated in its central office administration, rather than at the local social services offices, West said.

"The McCabe track record is not to achieve savings by going after the local" departments, West said. "That won't be the approach in any future round of cost containment."

West said Maryland is hiring 130 child-welfare case workers statewide to help reduce case loads.

Bita Dayhoff, an ACS board member, said the group plans another meeting later this month after McCabe's appearance to focus on ways ACS can assist the Howard social services office "after we understand exactly what will happen to [the Department of Social Services] and what programs will suffer."

"I hope there is a light at the end of this tunnel," she said. "I think it is a long tunnel."