Thursday, December 11, 2008

More than 200 Contra Costa positions at stake

Contra Costa supervisors must decide today whether to cut more than 200 county positions, many of them social workers dealing with child and elder abuse, in the aftermath of three high-profile cases of severe mistreatment.

The board must cut $18.5 million from the Employment and Human Services Department after earlier state budget cuts slashed its funding. In total, 203 positions are at stake, about 12 percent of the department. Warning letters have been sent out to affected employees and pink slips will be delivered Dec. 17. The board must make its final decision today as each month of delay would cost the county $2.8 million. Laid-off workers' last days would be Dec. 31.

"It's the worst-case scenario for now," said Joe Valentine, the department chief. "I don't think we're out of the woods yet."

Even with the bloodletting, the county will most likely be forced to consider additional cuts after the state addresses its $28 billion shortfall.

One silver lining: Valentine reconfigured his cost-cutting options since the last board meeting, saving the threatened foster and adoption services. Both programs still could lose half their budgets, but supervisors asked Valentine to find a way to keep the successful programs alive rather than send those duties to the state.

"Even at a reduced level we're still able to do a better job than if the state provided those programs," Valentine said.

As Advertisementsupervisors asked, Valentine has focused on maximizing matching state and federal dollars. That may have saved some programs, but divisions like child welfare services, which receives most of its funding from the county, could see deep cuts.

Seventy-nine social workers could lose their jobs, meaning caseloads for social workers investigating child abuse could increase from eight families a month to 12. Workers who manage the ongoing needs of families receiving child welfare services would manage 25 children a month, up from 15.

"It should be particularly frightening for the community that neglect and abuse are not going to be able to be investigated because we just don't have the time," said Allan Cohen, a social case work specialist, whose job is safe for now.

Cohen said he believes recent extreme cases — such as an Antioch girl police say was beaten to death by her foster mother, a Tracy boy police say was beaten and tortured by his guardians and an elderly Antioch woman stabbed to death — will increase with cutbacks.

The child welfare program receives the least amount of state and federal money, compared with the county's contribution, Valentine said.

"It's a reflection of how poorly the state funds child welfare programs," he said. "Our county and other counties are going to see a scaling back in the ability to support these."

Just how many workers will be laid off is uncertain. Often, employees choose to retire or move on, but in the current economy with job losses nationwide, employee turnover has slowed, leaving fewer vacant positions to eliminate, Valentine said.

Funding for mandated services such as foster care, child welfare, a welfare-to-work program and adult protective services has been frozen at 2001 cost levels, leaving a $33.2 million annual funding gap, according to the department.

In child welfare, the county is recommending closing two of the county's three emergency shelter group homes, leaving only the Concord receiving center. In adult protective services, the county recommends cutting 11 positions, which will increase adult abuse caseloads for remaining staff members. Financial elder abuse would get low priority. Support staff losses would also affect in-home care for seniors casework.

Other areas of reduction include teen pregnancy and parenting, job search, domestic violence counseling, and substance abuse screenings and other programs. The cuts would also hit information technology, public information, welfare fraud investigators and clerical support staff. In the probation department, the Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction program would be eliminated and juvenile services would be cut.

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