ST. PAUL (AP) -- Minnesota counties will have more flexibility to spend social service dollars from the state -- albeit a smaller amount in total -- as a result of budget changes that take effect July 1.
Instead of providing grants to counties for specific services, county officials will receive broader block grants.
Supporters of the new system say counties will be able to prioritize spending based on their unique needs. But several special interest groups fear counties may deliver money to services that have the most political clout instead of services that need the help the most.
Backers of the block grant concept say state regulation gets in the way of efficient spending by counties because different counties have different needs.
For example, several smaller rural counties in western Minnesota that have older populations might want to steer more money to assist vulnerable seniors. Other counties may prefer to use the money for children's services.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the block grants will allow counties to deliver services the way they think is best.
The state will begin delivering two health and human services block grants to counties, one for welfare, the other for children and community services. The Children and Community Services block grant combines 18 grants that used to be given out individually.
The bundling of grants worries Louise Brown of the Children's Mental Health Partnership.
She said Minnesota used to provide about $21 million a year to counties for children's mental health services. Brown said the Legislature passed the Children's Mental Health Act in 1989 to ensure that all counties provide a minimum amount of services for children with mental health needs. She said mental health groups will now have to compete for funding with senior groups, disability rights organizations and groups that represent abused children.
"What we've been working for is a statewide system so that wherever you live in the state you can at least get a minimal set of services and this will eliminate that significantly," she said.
Brown said counties will be expected to provide mental health services unless they run out of money. Brown worries about the pot going empty because the block grants provide 25 percent less than the total amount for all of the grants in the previous budget.
Others say they're concerned that mental health advocates don't have as much political clout as other groups.
Tom Johnson, a client advocate for the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, said senior organizations and groups representing neglected children may be better at bending the ear of a county commissioner.
"People with mental illness don't always make good advocates," he said. "They can be but many people with mental illness aren't going to want to address the county commissioners or advocate at a hearing. It's going to be very difficult for them to do that."
Johnson said any cuts to mental health services will add to an already stressed system. Officials with the Department of Human Services say they'll urge counties to maintain mental health treatment.
James Huber, the director of Partnerships for Child Development at DHS, said the agency expects counties to continue to provide services but prioritize them more.
"There's no hard and fast way to say that we're going to force a county to do one thing over another," Huber said. "Part of this legislation was drafted for counties to be less regulated than they have been. It takes a lot of money to regulate. It takes money away from services for people which we feel is the most important thing."
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