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State agency heads outline spending plans for Georgia’s child welfare, safety-net, mental health

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Jill Nolin and Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
January 18, 2024

Lawmakers continue to spend this week digging into the governor’s budget plans, which include billions of dollars more in spending increases.

Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed a $37.5 billion amended budget for the current year, which is a $5 billion spending jump from the original budget passed last year.

About $2 billion of that funding has been set aside for one-time expenses – like the proposed new dental and medical schools – and comes from the state’s massive reserves, which currently sits at more than $16 billion after state revenues surged in the wake of the pandemic.

But the governor has proposed a trimmer $36.1 billion spending plan for the new budget year that starts in July. State economist Robert Buschman told lawmakers Tuesday that a mild recession is likely in the first half of this year, which he said justifies a conservative revenue estimate.

Broce defends agency, says ‘hoteling’ is nearly eliminated

The Division of Family and Children Services has been under increased scrutiny in recent months as U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff announced findings of an investigation into the division. Ossoff’s office said DFCS routinely fails to meet safety obligations and experienced hundreds of children going missing from care.

In one hearing, two juvenile court judges testified that DFCS Director and DHS Commissioner Candice Broce asked them to consider detaining children in juvenile facilities because they did not have a placement, which Ossoff’s office said would be against the law.

The division’s lawyers have characterized Ossoff’s investigation as politically motivated cherry-picking.

On Wednesday, in front of a joint appropriations committee hearing, Broce wiped away tears discussing what she called “a particularly brutal and honestly unfair round of publicity.”

“The very nature of our work means we’re making serious decisions often life or death, and we don’t always get a chance to defend those decisions, especially when confusion and misinformation make the rounds, but we keep rolling up our sleeves and jumping into the fray, and you’re right there with us,” she said.

She touted work in recent years to improve the division’s ability to care for children, including nearly eliminating the practice of temporarily housing children in hotels because of a lack of placement. 

“On any given night in Georgia, DFCS is no longer housing 50, 60, 70 foster kids in offices or hotels,” she said. “We have been at zero many, many nights, at zero for weeks in the biggest counties with the highest foster care populations.”

The agency’s 2024 amended budget calls for more than $3.1 million to upgrade SHINES, the nearly two decade-old software used to manage child welfare cases, and the budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $1.4 million to upgrade the software, with $590,000 of that money being transferred from elder abuse investigations and preventions.

“SHINES is a really old system, and it’s not user-friendly at all,” Broce said. 

Broce said the software’s search function is unreliable, sometimes turning up different results with the exact same prompt. She said workers can only search for names but cannot search by keywords, such as cases organized by locations where abuse is occurring, for example, adding that the division is looking at replacements to the system as it plans upgrades.

“So I would say while we modernize it – I’m probably going to, or hopefully come back and ask for a lot more money to replace it next year, or in the next two years,” she said. “It’s got to be replaced. So much of – I truly believe this – the shortcomings in DFCS casework can be completely chalked up to an ineffective system, and it’s time for SHINES to be retired.” 

The agency put the cost to replace the system at about $50 million in a supporting document sent to the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. 

Broce’s department has also been overwhelmed by what’s known as the Medicaid unwinding. An army of workers has been checking the eligibility of all 2.8 million people covered by Medicaid after the end of a federal pandemic-era protection of health care coverage during the public health crisis.

The commissioner said the agency is training nearly 1,000 new caseworkers hired last year and working to reopen local offices to assist Georgians through the process. The governor announced late last year that he would set aside $54 million in federal funds for a “strategic surge” to cover overtime and bonuses for agency employees shouldering the workload and hire contracted workers to assist them.

Overall, the budget for the state department tasked with protecting Georgia’s vulnerable children and adults is set to increase by about .6%, or $6.4 million in the state’s upcoming budget with new spending on employee raises, technological updates and a facility to aid victims of sex trafficking.

The Department of Human Services’ 230 offices house just over 9,300 employees working across three divisions: aging services, child and family services and child support services.

Other new costs for the agency include $4.6 million to fund $3,000 raises for caseworkers and $2.7 million in new funds for Grace’s Place, a Gwinnett facility serving victims of human trafficking.

Governor proposes long-awaited funding boosts for safety-net providers, workers

Workers who assist people with disabilities are set to receive a long-awaited pay bump under the governor’s budget proposal.

Kemp’s spending plan includes $79 million in next year’s budget to go toward the $107 million needed to fund a $6-per-hour raise for direct-support professionals. The rest of the money to implement the proposal will come from federal pandemic relief aid.

That works out to be about a 40% increase for providers who serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“One of our biggest barriers to success is not being able to recruit providers and providers not being able to pay a livable wage,” Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, told lawmakers Wednesday.

Currently, their average hourly pay rate is $10.63, which providers have said makes it difficult for them to compete with retailers and some fast-food restaurants. And that shortage of workers has compounded the challenge of serving the more than 7,000 people with disabilities who are on a waiting list for home- and community-based services through Medicaid.

“This is paramount to us being able to address the private sector workforce and getting enough providers into the system,” Tanner said. “One of our challenges to being able to really serve the number of people that we need to serve with NOW and COMP waivers is the fact that we just have a lack of providers.” 

Right now, next year’s budget includes funding 100 waiver “slots,” which is down from recent years. Lawmakers often add more funding to the budget during the legislative process.

But Tanner also outlined a plan to address the waiting list for services, which has long been a perennial issue under the Gold Dome.

If the workforce is there to support people who receive Medicaid services, then the system will be able to handle funding another 500 new waivers a year. Tanner said about 400 people exit the program every year, whether because they have died, moved out of state or otherwise no longer need the services.

Between new people receiving services and others leaving the program, Tanner estimated that about 900 people could start benefiting from the program in the future.

“We have a clear plan to make that happen,” Tanner said.

It’s not the only pay bump for the state’s safety-net providers found in the new spending plans. The governor’s proposed budget also includes funding for a rate increase for behavioral health providers, which will give them a pay bump for the first time since 2008. And tens of millions of dollars are set aside for providers who offer other services for people who are elderly and disabled.

There’s also funding proposed for a new behavioral health crisis center in north Georgia, which would be one of eight that are needed in the next decade to meet Georgia’s growing demand for services, according to an agency-commissioned study done last year.

These funding boosts represent progress toward addressing some of the workforce issues that have hamstrung the agency, but Tanner said addressing the agency’s forensic backlog remains a challenge – and one that he acknowledged likely spurs complaints from local law enforcement.

“I know all of you get a lot of phone calls about the forensic population. Sheriffs, judges are upset. They’re not happy because their people are stuck in their jails waiting on a hospital bed,” Tanner said. “I know you get calls about people who are homeless who need our services. The reality is Georgia just does not have enough inpatient beds.”

Tanner said they have seen some improvement, though, in addressing the number of people who are awaiting pre-trial evaluation.

Marquee sports events come with hefty public safety price tag

The Department of Economic Development’s 2024 budget is set to balloon from $41.7 million to $74.3 million. $29.2 million of that increase is earmarked to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to “for public safety and infrastructure costs related to the 2026 FIFA World Cup and 2025 College Football Playoff National Championship.”

“We know those are major job creation events. They absolutely drive a huge amount of money back into the state budget,” Commissioner Pat Wilson said.

Video conferencing in from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Wilson said the state owns an extensive art collection – so extensive that it will cost $30,000 just to catalog it.

“When (Georgia Council of the Arts) moved to the department in 2011, the collection had been crammed into every corner of the GCA office,” he said. “So we brought some of it into the department and then we boxed some of it up and moved it to the state archives. There’s thousands of pieces. To my knowledge, we’ve never had an inventory and accounting of the collection, and so there’s a long-term issue here. I would love to figure out how we can do something with all of this artwork.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.