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September 28, 2012 | By | Posted in Governor

Change is at hand for state’s welfare funding

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

THERE’S A LIMIT: Thirty counties applied for the new program, but state law limited implementation of the block grants to only 20 counties for this year

HARRISBURG —  The governor wanted flexibility — to give counties the ability to change how they deliver services to the needy in Pennsylvania.

What the governor got was a test program — one that’s available in just 20 of the state’s 67 counties — that will hand out block grants to some counties. That money will use the money to pay for an array of social services.

State lawmakers had pushed back against Gov. Tom Corbett‘s plan to implement the new structure statewide, turning the idea into a pilot program with only 20 slots filled from 30 counties that applied.

Now, 10 counties will be left waiting for next year  — when the administration hopes to try once more for a statewide implementation.

Administration officials say they tried to select a diverse mix of counties to fill the slots for the new human services block grant.

Geography, size, poverty-level and population shifts were all taken into consideration when determining which counties would have access to the new program, according to a statement from the administration.  The administration hopes to expand it in the future.

 Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, which administers the program, said there was no advantage given to larger counties or counties with higher poverty levels. The goal was to have a fair cross-section enrolled in the program.

“That way, we can learn and the counties can learn how this best works moving forward,” Bale said.

The block grant replaces seven separate funding streams for mental health programs, assistance for the disabled, child welfare grants, homeless assistance and various health services at the county level.

This year’s budget included a 10-percent funding cut for those area, which  Corbett said he hoped to offset by increased flexibility provided by the block grants.  He initially proposed block granting all human services programs, but resistance from the General Assembly resulted in the program being introduced on a small scale.

“This program will ensure more funding makes it to our recipients and less is spent on red tape,” Corbett said in a statement.

Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander said in a statement that he was committed to working with counties and state lawmakers to expand the program to all 67 counties next year.

For now, the 47 counties not participating in the program will continue to use the old system in which funding was provided in specific line items and could not be use for anything else.

Opponents of the block grant program have criticized the administration for not establishing standards for judging whether the new approach is successful and have called the small-scale implementation a “roll out” rather than a pilot program.

Bernadette Bianchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services, which represents about 120 welfare service providers in the state, said the block grant would force previously separate parts of county budgets to compete with one another for funding.

Size appears to have mattered in the selection process — 10 of the 12 most populous counties that applied were accepted while only six of the 12 least populated counties to apply were included.

Philadelphia County did not apply and was not included. It is the most populous county in the state and the one that consumes most of the human services budget from the state level.

Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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