County costs ‘off the charts’

Consultant stresses need for smarter emergency housing, foster care

HUDSON — A special meeting of the county Board of Supervisors’ Human Services Committee this week heard William Moon, the social services commissioner of Delaware County, present his report on Columbia County’s Department of Social Services. What the committee heard was that Columbia County could do a lot better job for a whole lot less money.

Mr. Moon was hired for last August and asked to study the department’s practices and recommend ways to improve productivity and reduce costs. As part of his study, he has identified two “extraordinarily costly” functions in which he found that the county “has no peers when it comes to cost comparisons.” They are emergency housing for the homeless, and foster care for children who are the responsibility of the county. Data collected for the study indicates that per capita costs in each area are “off the charts,” said Mr. Moon.

None of Mr. Moon’s recommendations, which were made public at a meeting in Hudson Wednesday, October 6, require increased spending. Instead, he offered lower-cost modifications of existing practices. Some of the changes in housing of foster children may even provide better care and outcomes.

High on his list of changes was to discontinue the use of hotels and motels to house the homeless. As an alternative, he suggested the county acquire or lease apartments for small groups of people. The change, if the department implements it quickly, could reduce costs from this part of the county’s budget by as much as 75%.

Mr. Moon emphasized the importance of assessment of new recipients of social services and of providing employment programs to help people in housing for the homeless find their own housing and jobs as quickly as possible. He said the county has a good employment program already in operation but its activities need to become more comprehensive.

In the last five years Mr. Moon said in his report, the cost of housing the homeless in motels has exceeded $1 million annually. In 2011, it might exceed $2 million. During the summer of 2010, the county provided homes for 120 people in one- and two-parent families and singles.

The current situation provides no supervision of clients, which he said leaves recipients free to use drugs, drink, smoke, or entertain friends. He said the current rooms are more comfortable and have more amenities, like large-screen TVs, than the county needs to provide.

The new kind of housing, which would he recommended be developed in existing buildings, should have rules and monitoring. Clients would be required to leave at 8:30 a.m. to engage in work experience or job seeking activities and should not be allowed to smoke or drink in the apartment. Breaking rules could result in having to leave the public housing.

“Emergency housing needs not to be a place of eternal comfort,” he said. “That may have contributed to your problem.”

All local social service departments have been under siege, he said at Wednesday’s meeting. In Columbia County, the number of clients seen annually has risen from 8,000 or 9,000 to 13,000. But if the department acts, the number of homeless clients in publicly provided housing could drop to 50 in April, and 20 by next summer, he said.

Several supervisors said they did not believe that the city had enough housing to implement such a program, but Betty Young (R-Taghkanic), a member of the Social Services Committee, said the the committee has already identified a site in Greenport, and others mentioned additional sites. When asked about sending single mothers back to work, Mr. Moon said that they should stay home with their kids unless there was adequate daycare.

Right now the existing emergency housing program costs the county over $2,000 per client per month, said Mr. Moon. It could be reduced by two-thirds to around $600 per client per month with what is called “congregate housing,” he said. In his report, he called a reduction of $1.25 million in emergency housing expenses an attainable goal.

Ever since the 1990s, Mr. Moon said, more children have been removed from their homes to foster care. In his opinion the use by the local juvenile justice system of in-house psychological evaluation, which costs $15,000 for a 30-45 day stay, is overused. Most counties do two of these expensive procedures per year. Columbia County does 20 to 30 annually. An out-patient diagnostic process is urgently needed as are volunteers to provide foster care for adolescent foster children.

“The court would be satisfied with an out-patient evaluation process. There just isn’t one,” he said.

Instead of using Berkshire Farms, a special school in Canaan, so often, Mr. Moon proposed the county start its own non-secure detention facility, an approach allowed under state law and one he said would cost only around $50 per day instead of $300 per day at Berkshire Farms.

If this and other changes are instituted, the county could save $500,000 on foster care in this year’s budget, he said in the written report.

Mr. Moon decried the lack of respite homes, or temporary foster homes, which, he said lead less often to permanent detention than large institutions. “You need to identify 10 to 12 homes for adolescent placement quickly. This would solve more foster care problems than you can imagine,” he said, recalling how he took a young man into foster care who came to realize he could never move back with the parents, because they were incapable of providing a home for him. The man is a good parent today, he said with obvious affection.

Two of the finest foster care groups in his home county are run by churches. Mr. Moon said he recruited them by asking to speak from the pulpits of every church in his county. He also spoke to school administrators about the need, and he received their support. Many believe it is important to keep a child who is homeless or in trouble in his own school.

“We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there are individuals we are talking about,” he said. “I hope you take the route of further engagement. You’ll see the tradeoffs are just phenomenal with no less service, just different service,” he said.

Mr. Moon was paid $9,750 for the study. 

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