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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Real cost of boosting DCYF

March 25. 2018 3:01AM

An ambitious package of legislation designed to improve child protection and mental health services in New Hampshire cleared its final hurdle in the state Senate last week and now heads for the House.

There is strong consensus about the need for these bills. They have the unqualified endorsement of Gov. Chris Sununu and sailed through the Senate in a series of unanimous votes, with an estimated price tag of $5.5 million for the package.

That was the number frequently cited in recent weeks as the cost of the three bills, but the math is wrong. Lawmakers did not learn until last week that the actual cost, all of which will have to come from the existing state budget, is $8.3 million.

That figure was cited by Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, in the Senate's second debate on the three bills during a marathon session on Thursday.

Morse's observation notwithstanding, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, stuck with the lower figure in his statement after the vote.

"This legislation provides a wide range of support services to address changing and ongoing needs related to mental health, the developmentally disabled community, as well as the Division for Children Youth and Families, totaling $5.5 million in additional resources," said Bradley.

The package of bills includes voluntary services for families considered at risk, but not involved in a DCYF court action; support services for children and families, including new staff at DCYF to reduce caseloads; and additional funding for the foster care system.

It also addresses deficiencies in the state's mental health system by expanding funding for the developmentally disabled and residential beds for mental health care.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, supports the bills but is concerned that lawmakers will have to closely monitor the transfers of money from one part of the state budget to another, as agency heads search for millions of unspent dollars under the couch cushions.

D'Allesandro asked for a line-by-line breakdown of the three bills, and on March 20 got a detailed answer from Kevin Ripple, a budget analyst in the Office of Legislative Budget Assistant.

His analysis shows that the $5.5 million figure so frequently cited is really the price tag on one of the three bills, not the entire package.

Here's the breakdown:

Senate Bill 582

.$100,000 to fund an assessment of the appropriate caseloads and workload standards at DCYF;

.$1.1 million for 13 new child protective service workers and two supervisors;

.$1.1 million for foster care adoption programs, rate increases and services.

Senate Bill 590

.$1.5 million for voluntary services for families at risk, but not under court order;

.$1.5 million for community-based programs and services;

.$1.1 million for student loan repayment program for DCYF recruits;

.$310,000 for new DCYF attorneys

.$1.1 million to reduce the developmentally disabled waiting list

Senate Bill 592

.$445,160 for eight child protective service workers and two licensed drug and alcohol counselors.

According to Senate Communications Director Kate Spiner, the more accurate picture of cost emerged as the bill worked its way through committee.

The bill came to the Senate from the Health and Human Services Committee with some positions unfunded. After the first unanimous vote on the three bills, they were referred to the Finance Committee, which added the funding.

The state had also hoped to use some unspent money from the welfare budget (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) but later learned the requested transfer of federal funds would not be allowed, and the money would have to come from the state's general fund.

The new cost estimates haven't slowed the progress of the legislation or dampened the governor's support. "Today's votes are another step in our effort to rebuild, redesign and reengineer our mental health and child protection systems," said Sununu after Thursday's Senate session. "We made investments across the board for prevention and voluntary services - the first time in years the state has funded these types of programs."

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