Some social services cuts are set to be restored statewide

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

In the last year, the Livingston area has suffered the closure of three social services offices and the downsizing of a fourth. The reason? A state-level revenue shortfall projected at $227 million and the resulting budget cuts.

Now, with revenues coming in higher than predicted, some of those cut budgets are set to be restored — but whether that translates into the re-opening of social services offices in Livingston is yet unclear.

When the Montana Legislature, during a special session last year, announced $170 million in cuts to state agencies to deal with the projected shortfall, the Department of Public Health and Human Services was the hardest hit. The agency lost $49 million in state general funds and a total $110 million with federal matching funds, and soon announced plans to shut down two offices in Livingston: The Office of Public Assistance closed in January, followed two months later by the Mental Health Center. The caseloads from the offices were transferred to Bozeman.

“The DPHHS director told me they’re looking at restoring mental health services,” said Rep. Alan Redfield, who represents Montana House District 59. “But until I see it happen, I don’t believe it.”

A lot of people who need these serves don’t have a car or easy access to the internet, Redfield said.

“I’m hopeful some of this stuff will get restored, so the people who can’t get to Bozeman can still have a place to go,” he said.

As a result of the cuts, the DPHHS cut 22 offices statewide.

The Department of Labor and Industry had closed the Livingston Job Service office the previous June, citing budget cuts.

More recently, DPHHS announced the closure of the Livingston Child and Family Services office, which serves Park and Sweet Grass counties. After public outcry against the closure and a concerted effort by stakeholders to find a solution, DPHHS decided to close the office but keep one child protection specialist in Livingston, working out of a free office space offered by the city.

DPHHS Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt said the CFS office closure is not directly related to the budget cuts but the result of an internal need to shift resources to the Billings CFS office, which, according to Ebelt, has a crippling caseload.

Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock announced plans to backfill state budget cuts with $45 million in excess state revenue. Part of the money — $34 million — was freed up because the governor agreed to a two-year contract extension with the for-profit private prison company CoreCivic, which runs the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby.

Much of the money is likely to go to DPHHS, and the state’s first move was to restore the Medicaid reimbursement rate, which had been cut and had triggered a lawsuit. The state also plans to use the money to reinstate targeted case management programs to provide mental health services, but what that will look like is not yet clear.

Otherwise, Ebelt said in an email, no final decisions have been made.

Bullock and DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan want to hear from Montanans before they make choices, Ebelt said. They will hold a listening session at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in Helena.

Ebelt said he expects final decisions to be made by Sept. 1.