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Children Services levy renewal on ballot

10/4/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

GREATER AKRON — Officials at Summit County Children Services (SCCS) are asking voters to renew the SCCS’ existing levy for another six-year period in the Nov. 6 General Election.

The levy, according to SCCS Executive Director John Saros, provides 60 percent of the agency’s operating funds.

“It represents a whole host of programs that we are mandated to provide to the community, such as investigation, protective services, case management, placement, out-of-home care for children and foster and relative care, group homes, resident care — all those services we pay for,” Saros said. “Beyond that, if a child is permanently legally separated from their family, we have adoption programs and independent living programs to help a child establish permanency in their lives.”

The levy is Issue No. 73 on the ballot. It is a 2.25-mill renewal of a levy that costs the owner of $100,000 in property about $69 a year. The current levy expires in 2013, and the new levy would be in effect from 2014 to 2019.

Saros said the SCCS board decided several years ago that the agency would have better success with the levy if it asked for a renewal rather than for additional funds.

“One of the neat things [about a board] is you’ve got volunteers from all aspects of the community, and they’ve got a good feel with how things are out there,” Saros said. “Back in 2009, we knew the state would be cutting back, and we knew that taxpayers were not likely to sustain anything more than a renewal levy. We needed all those years to save the money to get us through.”

The result is that the agency cut its budget. Saros said the decision was made to close the agency’s medical clinic, offer an early retirement buyout to employees and change the way it staffs visitation between children in its care and their families.

As for the medical clinic, Saros said Akron Children’s Hospital took on the responsibility of treating children in the agency’s care at no cost to the agency.

“They bill Medicaid, so there’s no money going between us and Children’s Hospital,” he said.

The buyout means the agency now has a leaner staff, with 335 employees now compared to 385 at that time, Saros said.

As for visitation, the agency reorganized and rethought how it staffs those meetings, which Saros said has resulted in savings.

Meanwhile, the number of referrals of children has been relatively flat, Saros said.

What has happened, however, is that the number of children in agency custody has dropped from about 1,000 to about 540. Saros said the decrease is due to the way the agency is dealing with families. He said once a child is removed from a home, by noon the next day a meeting takes place.

“We have a meeting with family, parents, extended family, aunts, uncles, whoever,” he said. “It may be a neighbor, minister, friends. We gather them, and the major question is what is the best place for a child we can’t return home. We want to place this child with someone who will be as committed as possible, so we start looking at family and reach consensus as to where a child should be placed.”

Saros said the agency also has put more of an emphasis on fathers and making sure they and their families are involved. Through the Father Factor program, he said the agency is seeing results.

“In 95 percent of our case plans, we have a father identified,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they are engaged, but they are identified. We try to invite them in, and we have been partnering with fathers’ groups that have provided us with trainers working with dads in groups. A lot of these guys had no role models themselves and don’t know what the responsibilities of a father are. They are loving it. The training sessions end, and they keep coming back because they get so much out of it.”

Saros said the board opted to go on the ballot a year early, so the levy, should it pass, would not be collected until 2014. That also would give the board additional time to go back on to the ballot should the issue fail this November.

He added that even if the levy does pass, the agency must still continue to cut costs while doing what it must do to help children in need.

“Even with the renewal, there will be new fiscal challenges,” Saros said. “This is not a panacea for us. Throughout the whole next six years, we will have deficits in each year. The only thing keeping us going is we made the changes we did to save money. We will have to make more changes in future years.”

More information on the levy can be found at www.sup portsummitkids.org or on the Support Summit Kids Facebook page.

The Citizen’s Committee for Children Services is holding a levy fundraiser Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. at Portage Country Club. More information on that is on the website and on Page 23.

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