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Social Services braces for hard times

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A daily parade of destitute - and desperate - people is coming through the doors of Hubbard County Social Services wondering how they will heat their homes this winter.

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And that's why director Daryl Bessler would like to tuck some money away in his reserve fund. Tough times are here. He wants to ensure that all the people who need his department's help will get it this winter.

Bessler heads up one of "the big three" departments in Hubbard County - those with the largest budgets. Besides Social Services, the county highway and sheriff's department comprise the other two.

Bessler was placed in a hot seat by county commissioners last week during a special budget meeting. The board couldn't understand why he asked for a 34 percent levy increase to bank money in his reserve account. They offered him 4 percent.

"A reserve isn't logical if you have other needs," commissioner Lyle Robinson told Bessler more than once.

Whether it's necessary or not is a matter of perspective, Bessler said in an interview Thursday.

Because the department relies on federal and state monies, it must often pay out funds for economic assistance cases before incoming monies are credited to the agency. Those programs include food support, medical assistance, supplemental aid, general assistance for medical care and other help to needy families and individuals.

Since 2000, the department has seen a 59.5 percent increase in case loads for those types of assistance, Bessler said. In August 2000, the caseload was 1,159. Four years later, the caseload was 1,387. Last month it was 1,849 cases.

The department receives major influxes of cash after Hubbard County taxpayers replenish county coffers, in May and October each year.

But meanwhile, the bills keep coming in.

Bessler estimated to the board that the department really needs to keep a six-month reserve in its budget to avoid borrowing money to pay those bills. That would mean keeping $2 million in reserve, because the department's annual budget hovers just above the $4 million mark.

The department has been dipping into its reserves for the past decade to pay the bills. It has depleted that reserve fund, once $3 million, by $1.2 million, Bessler reported to the board.

"When we did our numbers gyrations and it looked like we were going to end the year of Dec. 31, 2009, with only $1.335 million, I said, 'We've got a problem,'" Bessler said. "We've overspent our reserves and will not be able to cash flow from the period of January to June (2009), really, with that kind of money."

The board has limited "the big three" to 4 percent increases overall. Bessler said it's almost impossible to meet the needs of the needy without dipping further into the reserve account.

That is especially difficult when the need is rising 59 percent over eight years and the ability to meet it rises 4 percent annually, which is the amount of growth the county has limited its departments to in recent years.

"Unfortunately the Legislature and the governor don't really have a good grasp of it when bad times hit," Bessler said. "There's more a demand for services in this office we're responsible for. We're sort of counter-cyclical in that sense."

But he also understands where Robinson and fellow commissioners are coming from.

"What Lyle is saying and I certainly concur, is that the public isn't going to want to, particularly in a downturn in economic times, they're not going to want to be taxed more for their property so we can establish a reserve," he said.

But that dwindling reserve fund hangs over his head, he admitted, and he tried to warn commissioners that they can pay now, or pay later.

Borrowing from the general fund to pay Social Services' bills isn't a sound economic strategy, he warned the board. Sooner or later county taxpayers will have to put a huge influx of cash into the fund to keep it solvent, he said.

The deficit spending will catch up sooner than later, he warned. He's not optimistic that the local economy will experience a radical turnaround in the next two years, affording him extra money to replenish the fund.

"When times are great there's less demand on our economic assistance programs," he said. "We'll still have issues of chemical dependency, mental health issues, physical handicapping issues - needs regardless of economic times," he said.

But the recent spate of cold weather brought an accompanying bout of sticker shock to families struggling to fill their propane and fuel oil tanks.

"That's going to be one of the most significant issues we're going to face this winter," Bessler said. "People are always going to have needs for medical care, food... People that aren't even on public assistance are going to re-look at their budgets for money and seeing how they're going to pay for these things."

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