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Politics & Government

Corbett, Counties Push Block Grant Expansion

Several county commissioners and state lawmakers are joining Gov. Tom Corbett in a push to expand a pilot program to change the way counties receive human services funding.

The proposal is one of the governor's lower-profile budget priorities. He wants to allow all counties to receive their state funding for seven distinct human services in a single block grant.

The initiative is now limited to 20 counties, which are receiving their state funding for seven distinct services (for things like drug and alcohol abuse, child welfare, and homeless assistance) in a single lump sum. The human services block grant pilot program allows counties to move money between programs.

"More people are being served, not less," insisted Commissioner Christian Leinbach of Berks County. He said because his county has participated in the pilot, it has already been able to serve an additional 40 people because funds were moved from one service line item to another.

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said with ever-dwindling funds, his members need the flexibility the program provides to help as many people as possible.

Think of a family that shows up at the county's door with several service needs, he said - under the block grant pilot program, he said, just one case worker can deal with all the requests, cutting down on time, paperwork, and money necessary to deliver services.

"To have that family sit down and say, 'OK, here is the one person we're dealing with and this one person is going to work us into the spectrum of services that is going to help us as a family,' and that's really the heart of the flexibility and why it works better," said Hill.

The program has been criticized by service providers & advocates, who have become accustomed to lobbying lawmakers, not county commissioners, for funding.

"Those special interest groups that have come to me in opposition are protecting one part of their own little silo," said Sen. Pat Vance (R-Cumberland). "But I have said, 'Explain to me how you think you could influence 253 legislators better than three county commissioners who know their county best.'" She is sponsoring a Senate plan to make the block grant approach available to all 67 counties that prove to be eligible.

Some Democrats say the pilot program should be given a full year before being expanded. The General Assembly is due to get a report on the block grant's implementation next January.

The pilot program is itself the result of a compromise between the Corbett administration and House opponents of the block grant approach, among them Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), who is proposing to scrap the program altogether.

Another House Republican proposal would expand the block grant pilot program to just 30 counties.

Only 20 counties were selected to participate in the pilot program for the block grant, and 30 applied last fall.

For Hill, that's proof enough that the program is a god-send for county administrators.

"The fact that we had almost half of the counties right out of the gate believe they were ready and believe it made sense for them, I think, is indicative that over time you're going to have counties do the same thing as they see the experience of their peers," he said.