A Fairfax County mental health and drug abuse agency, to the alarm of some county officials, has managed to avoid Fairfax's civil service rules by hiring almost 25 per cent of its workers on personal contracts.
"It has gotten out of hand," complains Fairfax Supervisor Nancy K. Falck (R-Dranesville) who joined with her fellow supervisors recently to direct the agency to stop the practice.
The supervisors also begun to take a closer look at how the largely independent Fairfax Community Services Board spends $13.5 million a year in public funds on 28 programs in the fields of mental health and alcohol and drug abuse.
Of the 596 persons employed by the services board, 143 are on personal contracts. That number includes 36 psychiatrists, 40 social workers, 11 clerks and 11 administrative personnel, among others.
"That's too high a percentage [25 percent] for contract hiring," said Supervisor Audrey Moore (D-Annandale). "I can see it for psychiatrists, but not in other areas."
"There's absolutely too much contract hiring," agreed Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth (D-Mount Verson), who proposed the clamp on the practice. "The civil service system is set up for a purpose, and it looks like the services board is going around the system. It's a credibility problem for the agency."
Officials at the service board defend their hiring practices. "The clerical workers under contract are paid at the same rate as clerical workers in the merit system," said Dr. Thomas B. Stage, acting director. "The alcoholism councelor under contract at the jail is paid at the same rate as an alcoholism counselor in the merit system."
Supervisor Falck, who has long been involved in the agency's programs, including working as a volunteer, said "I know of several cases where they're paying more." She and other supervisors have asked for the complete file on contract help to find out how many contract employes are making more than they would under the county's civil service system.
Dr. Stage and other agency officials said they have relied heavily on contract help because many of the programs are dependent on outside funding and as a result, have an uncertain duration.
Stage and John Hardy, director of the alcohol and drug abuse program, also said that through contract hiring their agency can more easily obtain the services of qualified specialists.
In the past the services board has had an abundance of money for its programs, many of which are the envy of less generously funded community agencies elsewhere in the state. But the funds have begun to dry up, and the only thing that's abundant inside the agency's paneled front doors in Vienna these days is problems.
Faced with a cutback in federal funding plus a diversion of more state funds to other localities, the services board has been forced to consider "consolidation," which, staff officials say, will mean job and services cutbacks in the next 18 months.
Stage said he sees no reason why the agency's three mental health centers -- Woodburn, Mount Vernon and Northwest -- should not be under a single administration.
A medical doctor who took over when Jack M. (Jay) Watson resigned 10 days ago, Stage said consolidation is 'a survival technique" for the agency. "Outmoded" federal guidelines, he said, are generating more administration than is needed.
"We're going to have to give up some provincial prerogatives," he said. "We're all in the same boat. If we don't all row and bail water together we're going to lose some programs."