Friday, November 19, 2010

Human Services Transition - Part 2

Last weekend I had the opportunity to speak with the outgoing Director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services, Len Stewart. Our conversation centered on his departure this week from that position (story paywalled), in the wake of disagreement with the Mesa County Commission on reductions in the department's budget for the upcoming year.

This significant loss of another key county official now seems all but lost in the latest cacophony surrounding Mesa County's Commissioners and changes in County administration that began earlier this year with the departure of Jon Peacock, the firing of Robert Edmiston, through
Meis-Gate to Mr. Stewart's departure, and continuing with the controversial hiring recruitment of Mr. Peacock's replacement.

Nearly three and a half years ago,
I wrote about Mr. Stewart's arrival in Mesa County after many years of service in the human services arena on Cape Cod. At the time, I found it interesting that someone from Massachusetts could find a home in Western Colorado, with its political environment and system of government so different from where he came from. Mr. Stewart told me something that I didn't know before; he worked for Senator Gary Hart , and developed an affinity for Colorado that eventually drove him to return.

For my post in 2007, I researched reporting on Cape Cod that suggested Mr. Stewart's departure from his Human Services position in Barnstable County was also fueled by disagreements with that county's Commissioners. Mr. Stewart was deferentially diplomatic when asked which of these two groups of Commissioners were the most difficult to work for. On his most recent departure and the circumstances surrounding it, Mr. Stewart would only say that "you have to be ready for this sort of thing when you work for elected officials".

Mr. Stewart went into significant detail on the nature of the department he led, and his role in administering it. He described the role of DHS as "the administrative arm of state government", and that typically the department's funding consisted of 20 percent from the county, and 80 percent from the state. A significant portion of the state money comes from the federal government, including funds to administer Medicaid and Food Stamp programs. So in actuality DHS administers aid funding from local, state, and federal sources.

I wanted to clarify that the disagreements between the Commissioners and Mr. Stewart that led to his departure centered on only 1/5 of the department's total funding; Mr. Stewart stated that the county's actual contribution for last year amounted to just 17 percent of its total budget.

Considering the penchant of at least two of our current Commissioners for petulance, arrogance and/or micromanagement, is it any wonder why they would choose to jettison Mr. Stewart over this comparatively small amount of the total funds that Mr. Stewart was charged with administering? For lack of a better analogy, it sounds to me like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Mr. Stewart was gracious enough to provide some insight into this thinking, by relating that he and his department were the subject of weekly performance audits by the Commissioners, but daily reviews by the state. He equated this to a "tightrope dynamic", especially when the county is in disagreement with the state on many issues related to these programs. See the previous paragraph for a related question.

Mr. Stewart may have helped answer this question with another comment he made; that despite the budgetary difficulties affecting all levels of government, there have been no real, significant dollar cuts related to the service delivery of Human Services. Mr. Stewart credited the administration of Governor Ritter for accomplishing this.

As it happens, Mesa County's loss is the state's gain, as Mr. Stewart has joined
Governor-Elect Hickenlooper's transition team as part of a Human Services workgroup. This group, comprised of 15-20 people, includes representatives of the administration of Denver Health, the Denver Housing Authority, a major charitable foundation, and members of advocacy groups for the disabled and mental health communities.

Mr. Stewart stated that his experience thus far has shown him how much those from the largest metro area in the state impact the allocation of resources. He also stated that Governor-Elect Hickenlooper "really wants to do something different". Perhaps that includes reaching across ideology and politics to develop solutions for our state's problems, something that might have been an interesting exercise in a Tancredo, Maes, or McInnis administration, or even a Beauprez/Rowland administration in 2006.

I hope that Mr. Stewart can continue to be a force for change and innovation in the Grand Junction area. If not, the experience and expertise that brought us
Bridges out of Poverty will hopefully bring his passion and professional experience to a statewide footprint, which stands to help even more of our citizens in need. Best wishes to him.

Have a good weekend.

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