Fiscal Year Opens Without A Bang

Posted: July 18, 1991

The skies over Cooper River were unusually still on Independence Day.

Missing were those fiery red, white and blue petals drifting down to the oohs and ahhhs of a neck-craning crowd.

Days before Camden County was scheduled to hold its annual fireworks in Cooper River Park, the freeholders voted to cancel the traditional event.

This was but one of the programs the county has eliminated as the young Republican-dominated administration tries to rein in the ever-rising cost of government. At a time when 150 employees are facing layoffs under the $227.7 million budget approved last month, the freeholders decided a fireworks celebration might seem especially callous.

The skies over Cherry Hill and Pennsauken may have been quiet, but the corridors of county government were not.

While the Republicans have been taking a knife to the county government, some critics have been howling that the freeholders are slicing right past the fat and into the muscle. The administration now faces several mini-mutinies

from government employees whose programs are being cut and from residents fearful that they are losing services.

"There was no way we were going to balance the budget without some service reductions," County Administrator Stephen R. Sasala 2d said. "Time will tell whether we made the right decisions."

Among the programs that could be slashed or scaled back are:

* The Special Child Health Services program that provides social workers and nurses to help children with disabilities, such as spina bifida and cerebral palsy.

* The Hazardous Materials Team, designed to contain and clean up hazardous- waste spills.

* The mosquito control operation, which monitors mosquito populations, sprays pesticides and clears stagnant water.

* A proposed day-care center for the children of county employees that was meant to serve as a model for private companies in the area.

* Park events, such as rock concerts, professional wrestling and some dances for disabled children.

Top county officials say few of these programs are actually being canceled. Some, such as the development of the hazardous materials team and the day-care center, are being delayed for further study, Sasala said.

Others, such as the Special Child Health Services program and the mosquito control operation, are losing employees, but their responsibilities eventually will be assumed by other county workers, officials said.

"It doesn't mean the number of services are being cut and the delivery of services is being cut," Freeholder Director Michael J. DiPiero said. "We're looking for new ways to deliver services."

But critics of the county budget, led by Democratic Freeholder Maria Barnaby Greenwald, say the Republicans have tried to disguise the severity of the program cuts to push through their budget.

"You're eliminating. You're taking away," she said. "This is not a gift to the taxpayers."

Perhaps the most passionate debate has focused on the future of the Case Management Unit of the Special Child Health Services program. Before the layoffs began, program coordinator Beth Magee and five case managers coordinated the care provided to about 1,700 mentally and physically disabled children, state officials say.

Two of the case managers lost their jobs last month, and a third, who is the only Spanish-speaking staff member, is due to be laid off at the end of this month. The remaining case managers will be expected to pick up the slack.

"Instead of being pro-active and heading off disasters," Magee said, ''we're only going to be able to respond to disasters."

What this means, for example, is that families with premature infants may not receive guidance on where to purchase special baby formula and how to pay for it if money is tight, Magee said. Only after the child becomes ill will her case managers be able to step in and help, she said.

Odella Welch, county health director, said the two case managers fired last month lost their jobs because of technicalities in the state civil service guidelines. The two will be replaced within a matter of weeks either by other county employees or outside applicants, she said.

In the meantime, Welch said, she has instructed her staff "to make certain the remaining case workers assume additional responsibility . . . so no family goes unserved."

But Magee and other advocates of the program remain skeptical that capable replacements will be found - and found fast enough.

"The people we've had are specialists and very hard to find," she said. ''Once the people are on board, it takes six months . . . till they put their feet on the ground."

The special child health services program is not the only one in which the administration is trying to compensate for layoffs by shifting responsibility to employees elsewhere in the government.

At the Mosquito-Control Commission, county officials intend to lay off nine of 21 workers and shift some of the duties to laborers in the Parks Department. That plan has commission Chairman Thomas E. Murray fuming.

He warned that the layoffs could force inspectors to make their rounds fewer than once every other week, which creates the potential for mosquito larvae to hatch before they can be detected and destroyed.

"That would put us at risk," Murray said. "That would put us instantly behind. By the time we knew what was happening, we wouldn't be able to do anything."

Murray said the cost for these cutbacks could be an increase in mosquito- borne diseases, especially encephalitis. He said he also doubted that the county would compensate for the layoffs by providing adequately trained and motivated workers.

But William Hoffman, director of county environmental affairs, said the administration would make up for the commission's cutbacks by providing park laborers when needed and would give them the required training in pesticides handling. Hoffman acknowledged that the commission remains skeptical.

"It comes down to the fact (that) they don't believe I or the county will give them the labor support they need when they need it," Hoffman said. "I did give them the word that I would train as many laborers as they see necessary."

In adopting the budget last month, the freeholders also scrapped the year- old hazardous materials team in the Department of Public Safety. There still will be a unit operating from the County Health Department, but that unit is trained largely for damage assessment rather than containment and cleanup.

Sasala predicted that the hazardous materials team eventually would be re- established in the public safety department while the unit in the health department is phased out. This, however, is not the year to do it, he said.

Camden County will now have to depend on emergency crews from farther away - from the state government and Fort Dix. They would be called on, for instance, if a train carrying toxic materials derailed or a truck spilled chemicals onto a highway.

The decision to cut off funding for the so-called Hazmat team was a disappointment to officials who had pressed hard in recent years to create it. Perhaps the strongest advocate was Assemblyman Lee A. Solomon (R., Camden), who left the freeholder board earlier this year.

Managing a hazardous spill that is an environmental threat is probably a public-safety function, Solomon noted. Said Solomon: "I guess (that) in a tough budget time, you have to make choices.

"Is there a risk to (eliminating) it? Yes."

The freeholders' bid to roll back government spending also may jeopardize

plans to develop a day-care center for the children of county employees.

"In the inner city," Greenwald said, "if you want to put mothers to work, if you want employees to be able to come to work, we have to provide answers for their chidren."

The freeholders, who previously provided a bipartisan endorsement of the center, had intended that it would become a model that would encourage private businesses in the area to develop similar programs.

But now the day-care center's future is in doubt. Sasala said he expected the proposal to proceed after further review. But Judith Palombi, head of the County Division for Children, said funds for the center had been eliminated.

At issue is $43,000 earmarked to develop a program similar to one in northern New Jersey, in which retired people are trained to help staff day- care centers. Although $25,000 remains in the county's capital budget for a feasibility study of the day-care center, it is unclear whether any of this money can legally be used for the program. Capital funds are intended to be spent on long-term investments, such as buildings.

There is no uncertainty about the cuts in programs offered by the county parks. Gone are the professional wrestling matches and rock concerts of past years. Also among the eliminated events are four of eight dances for disabled children.

Hoffman said the county tried to pare the number of events without reducing the diversity of programs. He stressed that upkeep of the parks has remained the top priority.

"When making the cuts, the philosophy was to provide as much money as we could to maintain the existing system, to keeping the grass cut . . . as opposed to the recreational activities," he said.

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