Georgia child welfare agency OKs cuts to meet governor’s mandate

Gov. Brian Kemp last month ordered state agencies to come up with 4% budget cuts this fiscal year, which began July 1, and 6% next year.

Gov. Brian Kemp last month ordered state agencies to come up with 4% budget cuts this fiscal year, which began July 1, and 6% next year.

The Georgia agency that oversees child welfare, elder abuse prevention and food stamp programs would cut hundreds of jobs and spending on numerous services under a proposal to slash $46 million in order to meet Gov. Brian Kemp’s call for a leaner state government.

Department of Human Services officials said none of its current 8,500 employees would lose their jobs, but more than 200 vacant positions or jobs now filled that will become vacant through normal attrition would remain open under the plan approved by its board Wednesday.

“I am confident that the cuts we are making are reasonable and moderate, and will continue to allow us to do our work,” said Tom Rawlings, the director of the Division of Family and Children Services, which, among other things, investigates accusations of child abuse.

Kemp last month ordered state agencies to come up with 4% budget cuts this fiscal year, which began July 1, and 6% next year.

Some massive enrollment-driven programs — such as k-12 schools, universities and Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled — are exempt from the cuts. So is about $300 million in spending on the court system and the General Assembly, which is exempt because they are separate branches of government.

In all, only about 23% of the state-funded portion of the budget was not exempted, but that still leaves several agencies on the hook for cuts, including the departments of Agriculture, Corrections, Driver Services, Public Health, public defenders, the Georgia State Patrol, the GBI, most of the Department of Natural Resources, and the administration of k-12 schools and colleges.

The DHS, including its children services division, would be among the hardest hit agencies because it has a huge budget and Kemp only exempted a portion of it from cuts.

This year, in fiscal 2020, the agency would save millions of dollars by cutting vacant positions and travel in areas such as child services staffers, and elder abuse investigations and prevention. Spending on some elderly home and community-based services would be reduced.

A newly created project to monitor kids in abuse cases after their cases have been closed would be eliminated, as would some transportation services. Foster parent recruitment would be cut, as would several education programs.

Many of the same cuts would continue in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, but the proposal includes not filling 73 child welfare services positions and 105 in the division that handles eligibility for welfare and food stamps as the jobs are vacated through normal agency attrition.

Just a few years ago, the state was adding jobs in those areas because heavy workloads for child welfare caseworkers and problems in handling food stamp applicants were long major problems for the state.

Agencies throughout state government that do everything from patrolling highways and guarding felons to investigating environmental problems and administering health care programs for one-quarter of Georgians are scrambling to come up with plans to meet Kemp’s request.

Kemp said the state would begin withholding money from agencies starting Oct 1.

Many of the agencies on the chopping block are labor-intensive — they provide services that require staffers — so there are fears they will have to eliminate positions. However, some agencies also have many vacant positions that may be cut to make up the difference.

Kemp won office in 2018 promising a leaner state government, and he wants to have enough money to fund his priorities, such as another big pay raise for teachers.

While the administration isn’t seeing flashing red warning signs on the economy, the governor and his staff have been cautious about how they deal with state finances.

The Kemp administration’s budget directive came only a few months after it cut spending by suspending for a month contributions into the State Health Benefit Plan, which provides health coverage for more than 660,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents. The one-month “holiday” saved state agencies and school districts about $235 million.

The move was made because administration officials wanted to make sure the state was able to make its budget for fiscal 2019, which ended June 30.

Good economy or bad, the administration also faces higher costs as school and health care program enrollments continue to rise.