Just three weeks ago Butler County Children Services Executive Director Jerome Kearns was talking about “over-hiring” to fill vacancies, this week the county commissioners blasted the agency for allowing a $2 million budget deficit to double.
Commissioner Don Dixon on Monday said he wants the agency’s top management to explain their finances because they are spending money they don’t have. Last summer the agency’s finance director Barb Fabelo — during the three-week social worker strike — told commissioners the agency was facing a $2 million to $2.5 million deficit for the remainder of 2014. That number has doubled, Dixon says, and he blames Kearns and his top management.
“I want it to be real clear we are running the financial end of it and we are making sure that they can’t write checks that they don’t have the money for,” Dixon said. “We wouldn’t sit here and let any other department run a $4 million deficit. I don’t have any confidence in them, and if they can’t get this in line then we’ll find somebody to get it in line.”
The issue arose over foster care placement contracts that included a total increase of $344,754. County Administrator Charlie Young said the county has more children in foster care almost 500 — the average has been about 430 — and they are staying in placement longer, hence the added cost. Dixon said he wants BCCCS management at the next meeting to explain the hole in their budget and why they still plan to spend more.
It has been a tumultuous year for Children Services — with a major reorganization announced in January, a 29 percent employee turnover rate, and a three-week strike over wages. Kearns sat down with the Journal News in early December to discuss the “revolving door” at Children Services. At that time he was talking about a planned job fair for Dec. 23, to help address vacancies.
“I think we would feel good to have 10 offers we would like to make. That would put us above a little bit over where we’re budgeted for,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a workforce that is ready and capable to do what they do, to get folks through training. It’s a wise decision considering the time it takes for folks to get oriented and that sort of thing.”
The job fair, however, was cancelled. Young said the existing vacancies will not be filled, but they believe current staffing levels are sufficient to ensure the safety of children. Young said the $4 million budget hole didn’t just sneak up on anyone, but it was not given the attention it deserved.
“It isn’t that Barb just noticed this, it’s that the agency, taken as a whole, hasn’t reacted to that news in a way that really is necessary,” Young said. “Over the last two weeks we’re seeing a change in that and real recognition of the implications of having a $4 million budget deficit.”
Young said Kearns and his management team are in the process of combing over placement contracts — the majority of children in foster care are living outside the county, which is more costly — in an attempt to renegotiate terms and rates. He added that changes made as part of the reorganization seem to be working but the cost savings won’t really start showing until early 2015.
Kearns and Fabelo said the biggest factor contributing to the deficit doubling was a $2 million reduction in federal funding. A child in BCCS custody is put in foster care immediately, but the state only reconciles federal funding eligibility on a quarterly basis. If the state determines a child isn’t eligible for federal funds, 100 percent of the cost comes out of the $13 million property tax levy.
Fabelo said she should have seen the trend and reacted sooner. Now she is conducting an investigation into why so many children are being deemed ineligible for federal funds.
“We’re seeing tremendous reductions in revenue, but we were not keeping up with the expenses,” Fabelo said.”We were not reducing at the same level.”
Fabelo said they have been drawing on their $5 million cash balance to pay the bills. Young said they have already erased about the half the deficit — closing the family visitation center saved about $800,000 — but the additional $2 million shortfall will have to be eliminated with a smaller work force. The agency has eight-to-ten budgeted positions that are vacant and will not be filled. People will be hired for new vacancies going forward, according to Young.
One of the issues that was part of the reason for the strike is the agency has seen rapid resignations but slow hiring. Union President Becky Palmer said the workers are very concerned about the hiring freeze.
“How can the commissioners and the administration have not seen this coming? The budget did not change overnight and the number of families we work with have only increased,” she said. “We believe that if the administration would work with the case workers collaboratively and listen to the workers suggestions, progress can be made. Unfortunately, communication with the workers is not valued.”
Dixon said he wants to put the agency’s top management on a probationary-type period where they will be required to get permission to spent money, until he is satisfied they are able to reign in expenses. Commissioner T.C. Rogers agreed with Dixon that the spending must be put in check, but he doesn’t want to necessarily micromanage Children Services.
“We have hired the present management for Children Services to do the job and we are going to hold them accountable, within the budgets we have given them,” Rogers said. “They are to do their jobs, that’s what they are hired for.”