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ideastream Focus on Mental Health: Sparks Fly as Levy Vote Set For May 6th

Wednesday, February 19, 2003 at 2:32 PM

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A special election has been called for Cuyahoga County. Voters will be asked on May 6th to support a tax increase for Health and Human Service programs. While county leaders acknowledge that tax hikes are a tough sell, they're trying to head off voters concerns and avoid a few political land mines along the way. ideastream's April Baer has the story.

One of county government’s biggest responsibilities is to provide services for those who have nowhere else to go. This can mean residents who are too poor to afford medical insurance, or elderly people who live alone, and need someone to check in. It might mean unemployed workers trying to retrain, or children in abused families. Health and Human Services - or HHS, as it’s sometimes called - makes up a large share of the county’s budget, and costs are rising every day.

The 3.1 mil levy that provides much of the money for HHS will expire at the end of this year. But finances have become so tight that the commissioners have decided not to wait. They’re asking for a larger millage, and they’re going after it seven months ahead of schedule. Commission President Jimmy Dimora.

Jimmy Dimora: This levy on May 6th will generate an additional $58.8 million for health and human service needs. It’s not going to get us back to where we were at, but it’s going to keep the safety net intact.

There are several factors that are forcing the county’s hand. Tax revenues are down. Earnings from the government’s investments have diminished, as Wall Street has lagged. To make matters worse, County Administrator David Reines says the budget is still smarting from major reductions in state funding.

David Reines: We’ve lost over $100 million from the state of Ohio. Now, we’ve certainly reduced our expenditures almost to that level in response to those cuts, but at the same time we’ve had to cut back significantly on critical programs, and we’re concerned that the health and human services safety net remain strong and supportive.

Some critics of the county have suggested that HHS agencies have yet to make the really deep cuts that could balance the county budget. Jim McCafferty, head of the county department of Children and Family Services, admits his agency is millions of dollars over its projected limit. But, he says, in human services, it’s not easy to just cut budgets… and cut people off.

Jim McCafferty: We have to house children, we have to provide services to kids. We have to visit. If we want to help children who’ve been through the trauma of abuse and neglect - to the point where they had to be removed from their families - it’s going to cost us something on the other end.

McCafferty says if human service agencies do not get the funding they need to do their jobs, their clients are likely to cost more over the long run. For example, he says abused children left untended often resurface, as offenders in the juvenile justice system.

As county leaders prepare to sell voters on the levy, they’re also dealing with another ticklish issue. A coalition of unions is offering volunteer and monetary support, to help get the levy passed. Labor’s formidable manpower and financial resources could make the campaign a lot easier. But that support doesn’t come for free. John Ryan, head of the local AFL-CIO chapter, says the unions want to talk about the obstructions they’ve encountered at some of the non-union agencies that work with the county on health and human services; specifically, certain mental health providers, and Metrohealth Medical Center.

John Ryan: We’re very interested in sitting down with various providers and the county and working out accountability to make sure this is a levy that we can all support enthusiastically.

He stops short of threatening an anti-levy campaign if no deal can be reached. But if the unions’ overtures are rejected, observers suggest labor’s frustration may cost levy votes. Some of the targeted agencies have said privately they feel they’re being strong-armed into making unreasonable concessions. But Ryan dismisses these characterizations. And he says he’s not interested in casting a shadow over the levy campaign.

John Ryan: I’m confident that if reasonable people sit down and talk together, we’ll be able to reach an agreement that enables us to move forward on this issue.

While County leaders have agreed to arrange the meeting the union has asked for, they seem unwilling to pin the levy entirely on labor support. County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora played down the controversy yesterday.

Jimmy Dimora: Well we’re listening to all proposals and presentations. They’re not the only ones - you have the MH community, Metrohealth, seniors, with Options, children with the Early Childhood Initiative, They’re just another group that wants to put their iron in the fire and let us know of their needs and their issues, and we’re taking that all into consideration.

Dimora adds, however, that if labor leaders do not get behind the May 6th vote, and the levy subsequently fails, the existing union workforce might face potential layoffs and cutbacks. A date for the proposed meeting between union leaders and county contractors has yet to be set. The county’s proposed 4.9 mil levy would increase taxes on a hundred thousand dollar home by an additional $65 per year. In Cleveland, I’m April Baer.

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