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Manager: Reorganize Human Services

Lebanon — City Manager Greg Lewis unveiled a proposal Wednesday night to streamline the department that provides aid to the city’s low-income residents by bringing those services more directly under his jurisdiction.

In a budget workshop session at City Hall, Lewis said he intends to “restructure” the Human Services department by merging it into the city manager’s department. Lewis said if the City Council approves the plan, it would be the first restructuring of a department since Lebanon became a city in 1958, and would likely take effect within the first quarter of 2014.

Lewis told councilors that, under his vision, services for low-income residents would be overseen by a “general assistance benefit manager” who would “basically manage and coordinate and administer the benefits to which eligible applicants are qualified and to be totally focused and immersed in people who come for benefits.”

In New Hampshire, municipalities are required to provide general assistance to the needy, and Lebanon does so both with direct welfare payments to needy residents and through money targeted to social-service agencies.

Human Services, which would get $508,550 under Lewis’ proposed budget, has been operating under a temporary director since June after the former director, Shannon Hastings-Fox, abruptly took a leave of absence in late February. Lewis initially described it as a “medical leave,” but on Wednesday night referred to it simply as a “leave” during a break in the budget session. He said he received Hasting-Fox’s resignation in mid-October and has since accepted it.

Lynne Goodwin, a former Head Start teacher, took over the department in June on a temporary basis. Paula Maville, deputy city manager, has also managed Human Services on an interim basis.

In general, city councilors appeared receptive to the idea of restructuring.

“This is a strategy that sounds like a reasonable one,” said Councilor Karen Liot Hill.

But councilors questioned other functions of the department, particularly its contributions to local nonprofits, such as WISE and Listen, and whether the levels of funding should be revisited.

In the 2014 budget, the proposed $237,330 in funding for nonprofit human service agencies is about $8,400 less than 2013 levels, reflecting what had gone to Hannah House, which closed its residential program in Lebanon serving teen parents.

In the 2012 budget, funding for outside human services organizations was cut by nearly $36,800.

Liot Hill said that the money the city contributes to nonprofit organizations “are some of the best dollars that we invest in terms of people in our community,” adding that the agencies can provide much more bang for the city’s buck than it could on its own. But she also said that funding levels, and how many organizations receive funding, should be revisited in budget drafting next year, meaning the changes would take place in the 2015 budget.

“I’m not sure they are the right numbers. I’m not sure how they compare to what the need is,” Liot Hill said. “We seem to have developed a list of people who have been in our budget. Certainly, for the last nine years, there’s been little change and it sort of seems like anyone who got to the table is there.”

Councilor Carol Dustin added that the “funds we invest as a city generate a huge amount of private funding to serve our citizens. However, I think that we’re not being realistic if we expect these agencies can continue to provide the level of services that we have been receiving with funding that’s three years out of date.

“Particularly because some of these agencies have been sequestered,” Dustin said. “They’ve been impacted by the lack of a federal budget and the sequester kicked in, and their funding was drastically cut in some instances.”

Councilor Nicole Cormen agreed, adding that “it might be better to give fewer organizations more money if they serve a wider population.

“Some of these organizations have a more general reach than others,” she said. “ ... Part of me wants to give the Hannah House money to the senior center because they can’t do meals on wheels anymore and that’s crazy. If we’re going to outside agencies, I would rather see us funding fewer agencies at a higher level, those agencies that broadly meet our needs.”

Cormen added that the private nonprofit sector “needs to itself have a serious conversation about overlapping missions and consolidation because things are too fragmented.”

“There’s a lot of competition for the same dollars,” she said.

City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss said nonprofit organizations that serve more Lebanon residents should also be given special consideration.

“At the risk of sounding stingy, we kind of balk at being the regional hub at times when we’re supporting other communities,” she said. “But here’s one of the places where, how does this money impact Lebanon residents directly? I think that has to be part of the conversation.”

The proposed 2014 budget contains $71,620 for full-time wages in the Human Services department, a 3 percent increase from 2013.

The overall $52.2 million budget for Lebanon would be a 13 percent increase in spending from 2013, driven mostly by $4.7 million in additional capital spending from the current year. If approved, the estimated municipal tax rate would increase by 3.5 percent, meaning the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay $2,440 in city property taxes.

Lewis said he is looking for someone with a master’s degree in social work or social sciences to inherit the Human Services position. He said the City Council would hold a public hearing before any restructuring of the department takes place.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.