Corbett pitches block grant idea to Pa. counties

    Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

    For years, local human-services officials have asked the Pennsylvania Legislature for more flexiblity in allocating funding. On-the-ground managers argue they know better — than state lawmakers or Harrisburg bureaucrats — just what their community needs and where dollars should be invested.

    Gov. Tom Corbett seems to agree. His budget plan combines funding for seven human services programs.

    There’s a catch. The block grant represents 20 percent less money.

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    “The county governments will have 100 percent of the responsibility and only 80 percent of the funding,” said Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “This means there’s absolutely fewer dollars for homelessness, drug and alcohol services, also for people with intellectual disabilities.”

    “It is a big cut,” said Anne Bale, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. “But, that’s reflective of the overall budget situation that we are all in. There are many cuts happening all across state government right now. No one is real thrilled about that.”

    In Delaware County, the 20 percent reduction might mean $8 million less. If lawmakers adopt Corbett’s plan, Philadelphia would miss out on $34 million to $42 million, said city health commissioner Dr. Donald Schwarz.

    He says in Philadelphia about two-thirds of the cut would affect people who rely on the mental health system, and he’s worried the plan would land more people in state mental health institutions.

    The commissioner complained that Corbett’s proposal lumps together money for social services that are very different.

    “This violates a key precept of creating a block grant. A block grant is useful, and flexibility in a block grant is useful, when the programs are related,” Schwarz said. “To throw unrelated programs into a block grant and pretend that we can be efficient with those dollars is ill conceived and ill advised.”

    Delaware County’s executive director Marianne Grace welcomes greater county-level control but knows there will still be many strings attached.

    “The devil is in the details,” she said.

    Should Corbett’s plan prevail, Grace is hoping county officials will be in on the discussion when state lawmakers set rules for the new block grant.

    “We certainly have the best understanding of the needs of citizens,” she said.

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