Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Agency outreach questioned

Service for mentally retarded up 48 percent

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The agency that cares for and houses Hamilton County's mentally retarded residents has been too successful at spreading the word about its services, some members of a county committee said Tuesday.

The Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities agency's client list grew 48 percent in the past five years - to 5,300 - and it expects demand to keep growing about 9 percent a year. That's why the MRDD board wants a 35 percent increase in its tax levy, which expires in December.

But the Tax Levy Review Committee - which advises county commissioners on whether to put levies on the ballot and at what amount - questioned at a meeting Tuesday whether MRDD has created its own financial predicament. The number of clients grew by an average of 7 percent a year between 1999 and 2002 before jumping almost 20 percent in 2003.

"No one has said this, but it's lurking back behind us that because you were in the last year of your levy you went out and ran up the numbers to make a case for more money," committee member David Cook said, interpreting questions raised by his counterparts.

"That's simply not true - not at all true," MRDD Superintendent Cheryl Phipps responded.

The agency is required to help mentally retarded and disabled residents, and it's trying to raise awareness of its services, she said. The agency has also added services such as pet therapy that clients have asked for.

Those were policy decisions that should have included the county commissioners, committee Chairman Chris Finney said.

"Someone's making a conscious decision to spend my money providing more services - new services," he said.

But MRDD board member Lynn Sundermann said clients' families are taxpayers, too, and they have a right to know what services they're entitled to. Keeping quiet, she said, "penalizes the poorest and least educated."

MRDD is seeking a 0.91-mill increase of its current levy. It would raise about $73 million a year for the agency and cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $120 a year - a $30 increase.

The committee will take public comments at 5 p.m. Monday on the sixth floor of 138 E. Court St., downtown. The committee must make a recommendation by July.

E-mail candrews@enquirer .com

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