With $50 million deficit, Lee County looks to trim budget in human services and other departments

Bill Danusiar a Volunteer at Southwest Florida Addiction Services in Fort Myers conduct bible study with a group of patients battling from drug dependency issues. Lee County in a cost cutting measure to help reduce the budget is recommending to cutback several health service programs including Mental Health, Health Departments and Substance abuse.  The budget for these programs reached 11.3 million dollars in 2010 fiscal year.  Manuel Martinez/Staff

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Bill Danusiar a Volunteer at Southwest Florida Addiction Services in Fort Myers conduct bible study with a group of patients battling from drug dependency issues. Lee County in a cost cutting measure to help reduce the budget is recommending to cutback several health service programs including Mental Health, Health Departments and Substance abuse. The budget for these programs reached 11.3 million dollars in 2010 fiscal year. Manuel Martinez/Staff

— Budget troubles in Lee County may soon cut into services.

Lee County Commissioners at Monday's monthly management and planning meeting discussed Human Services department programs that could be scaled back though they did not direct the department to make reductions.

With the beginning of the budget process still months away, human services director Ann Arnall wasn't surprised the board gave no specific directions. Still, she is moving forward with the expectation that an order to reduce funding will be in the department's future.

If that happens, it may mean tough choices for the department that is meant to be a resource for those struggling in tough times.

“It's going to translate into a direct service impact when dollars are cut,” Arnall said.

The county's general fund is running a $50 million deficit for which it is borrowing from its reserves.

Major county departments -- human services, emergency services, facilities and transportation -- under purview of the county commission will be reviewed for possible funding reductions, said Pete Winton, assistant county manager.

“I think we're at a point now where there has to be a determination of what (services the county) is going to remain in, and not just that but what you're going to remain in at a lower level of service,” Winton said.

Some services that could be affected include substance abuse, mental health and children's services.

Lee County spent about $11 million in contracts with nonprofit organizations and the health department to provide services such as food and shelter for domestic violence victims, after-school programs for children and substance abuse detoxification treatment.

As the economy has shrunk, so have the revenues that fund these types of services. The department has in the past few years done all it could to avoid cutting services.

“We've gone through freezing positions, reducing operating expenses, renegotiating, cutting back on office supplies,” Arnall said. “We're beyond that as far as doing internal cuts.”

One commissioner expressed concern that cuts in human services would lead to higher costs in law enforcement as those who did not receive treatment fall into trouble with the sheriff's office.

“If indeed maintaining or enhancing (funding for human services) does correlate to a decrease in law enforcement, that we really need to be looking at that side of the equation,” Ray Judah said.

He had just mentioned that the entire budget for all departments within the county commission's jurisdiction, including human services, was $116 million while the Lee County Sheriff's Office's budget was about $150 million.

It's with this premise that Kevin Lewis, director of Southwest Florida Addiction Services, said he is well familiar.

While it's popular to talk about the cost of incarceration and jail and prison overcrowding, what's less popular is talking about treating the significant number of those whose key issue is a “substance use disorder,” he said.

“Research is clear that if we don't tend to the disorder,” Lewis said, “they'll continue to be incarcerated and will cost us money.”

Not only are drug and alcohol addicts a cost in law enforcement, they also add to the burden of healthcare costs by increasing the frequency and duration that they seek medical treatment, he added. And, Lewis said, 7 in 10 cases of child abuse involve an adult with a substance abuse issue.

For Commissioner Tammy Hall, the board wasn't in a position to recommend cutting a certain dollar amount arbitrarily.

Instead, Hall stressed that the department find efficiencies in the discretionary portion of the human service's budget.

The department's $11 million to nonprofit organizations is charitable, not mandatory, she said, but “the right thing to do.”

“We still have to cut a substantial amount of money from this budget,” she said. She suggested looking for areas that overlap, such as whether the county's after school programs duplicate programs run by schools.

While the board gave no direction to make cuts, Arnall said she'll dig deeper with the help of the department's advisory council.

She suggested some savings could come by tightening requirements for those organizations that compete for county dollars and reducing the appropriations made to each group. She also suggested the county could reduce after school programs and limit money beyond what is required by the state and federal programs.

“In the end,” she said, “It's all about what businesses the county wants to be in.”

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