The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is seeking a larger than anticipated increase in state funds to accelerate recommended changes in a five-year plan to improve child welfare operations.
Ed Lake, director of the state's largest agency, told a legislative budget subcommittee Tuesday the agency is seeking about $11 million more than the $60 million expected to be appropriated in the first two years of the Pinnacle Plan.
Lake, hired in October from Tennessee, where he was deputy director of that state's human services agency, said DHS would like a $46 million increase instead of the projected $30 million hike to implement the plan for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“We want to accelerate some of the work that we're doing to get some of these reforms in place quicker because they're critical to the overall success of the plan,” Lake said. “They're critical to providing services, driving workloads down.”
The plan was to get $30 million in funding each of the first two years. Lawmakers last year appropriated $25 million for the first year of the plan, which among other things calls for hiring more child welfare workers, recruiting more foster parents and moving away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.
Lake, making his first budget request to Oklahoma lawmakers, said the extra money in the upcoming fiscal year would allow for changes to occur quicker than expected as well as reduce an increased allocation for the third year of the plan, from an additional $20 million to $12 million.
Additional funding for the plan's final two years is projected at $12 million each. At the end of the five years, the state will have provided almost $100 million more a year to DHS to pay for the changes. With federal funds, the total additional cost is estimated at about $153 million a year.
Call to hire, pay more
Legislators last year allocated $587.1 million to DHS, an increase of $50 million, with half of that going to the Pinnacle Plan. Lake is seeking an increase of about $80 million for the 2014 fiscal year. The agency receives about $1.6 billion in federal funds, putting its total annual budget at nearly $2.2 billion.
Other uses for additional requested state funds include paying for an increase in developmental disabilities and aging community services rate increases, nearly $10 million, and nearly $3 million to reduce the eight-year waiting list for developmental disabilities services.
Lake said the agency will have hired 100 more child welfare workers and supervisors by the end of this month as called for in the Pinnacle Plan.
The new workers must complete a competency test and training before they can begin accepting caseloads, said Deborah Smith, director of the agency's child welfare services. She said it will be about nine months before the new workers will handle a full caseload.
The additional workers will bring the agency's worker-to-child ratio to 1 to 5, as recommended in the plan, she said. The ratio now is 1 to 8.
About 9,000 children statewide are living in foster care, with relatives or in shelters, she said.
The Pinnacle Plan also calls for the agency to recruit 500 more traditional foster parents.
Smith said 960 resource families have been recruited through Jan. 7.
Under the plan, child welfare workers are to be paid more, trained better and have reduced caseloads.
Lake said other employees in the agency have gone several years without a pay increase. The last across-the-board pay increase for state employees was October 2006. He estimated it would cost $12.5 million for an across-the-board increase for his agency's employees if the agency would be brought up to 95 percent of the average salary level in state government.
“Their cost of living has gone up, and people are still working at a wage level that hasn't changed in a long time,” Lake said.
Changes in shelter use
The plan also requires DHS to eliminate shelter use for the youngest abused and neglected children in its care and steeply reduce shelter use for older children. DHS met a Dec. 31 deadline to put all babies and 1-year-olds in its care in family-like settings rather than shelters. By June 30, all years and younger in its care must be in family-like settings. By June 30, 2014, children younger than 13 must be placed in foster homes.
DHS commissioners agreed last year to make the changes to settle a federal class-action lawsuit. Under terms of the settlement, three neutral outside experts are being paid to review the plan and monitor its implementation.
Tuesday's budget meeting was the first of several planned by legislative panels to review agency performances and hear budget requests. Information will be used to help develop a state budget. Lawmakers are expected to have about $7 billion to appropriate. The session starts Feb. 4 and runs through late May.
Tuesday's meeting was a joint session between budget committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Standard questions asked how agencies would handle a 3 percent budget reduction in the 2014 fiscal year and the consequences if all federal funding ended.
“They sent that to everybody,” said Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, chairman of the House budget subcommittee on human services. “I don't see DHS getting cut.”
With federal funds making up about 75 percent of its budget, the loss of that money would result in many of its programs being eliminated or reduced, according to the agency's response.
Lake said it's estimated DHS could lose about $7.5 million in federal funds if a deal on spending cuts isn't reached in Washington by March 1. If a deal isn't reached, the “fiscal cliff,” or sequestration, could result in the state losing $137 million in direct federal funding.