State DHS plan stirs ire of local legislators

State leaders are lining up this week to challenge a plan by Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Don Thompson to redirect $1.5 million in federally allocated funds to the department’s general budget.

The modification could have a dramatic impact on youth services and possibly result in the closure of dozens of Boys and Girls Clubs across the state, officials said Tuesday.

“I’m mad as hell about it,” District 122 Rep. J. P. Compretta said Tuesday. “These Boys and Girls Clubs do a tremendous job throughout the state. It is unfortunate that some in the state legislature do not feel the same way that I do.”

Each year, Mississippi receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) funds from the federal government.

State department budgets are being presented in Jackson this week.

Mississippi received $4.8 million in TANF funds this year, with about $2 million earmarked for youth services such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA, Ronnie Sleeper of the State Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs said Tuesday.

Sleeper said the money is passed from the federal government to the state, which administers it through DHS.

“If we don’t get this money, dozens of Boys and Girls Clubs will be forced to close,” he said.

District 46 Senator David Baria said Tuesday that the matter is currently in conference, meaning any and all changes to the budget must still be approved by the House and Senate.

Baria said the change will move the money to the general fund for DHS and give Thompson control over how it is spent.

Thompson has yet to say publicly why he wants the money moved and what his plans are for it.

Thompson did not respond to requests for comment by press time Tuesday.

“I think this money is well spent where it is and it needs to stay a line item,” Baria said. “I am against this, I want the money to stay where it is needed.”

Compretta said he believes the reason the money is being shifted is because DHS is trying to subsidize its budget, which has already been cut over the past year.

“It is totally unacceptable,” Compretta said. “Line items are only supposed to go to certain things. Youth services are critically important.”

Sleeper said the concern is that officials may be “short-selling the impact that Boys and Girls Clubs have on the community.”

“We have no reason to believe that we are a target for anything, but it is concerning,” he said. “The Boys and Girls Clubs keep kids off the streets, they teach character education, and are a very positive place for our kids. The state does not pay a dime for this, they only pass the money from the federal government. They are trying to change the grant after it has already been awarded.”

There are 23 Boys and Girls Club groups in the state with 71 individual operations.

TANF funds are divided among the 23 groups according to the number of children served.

The Gulf Coast chapter, which serves Hancock and Harrison counties, is the largest in the state, serving more than 2,500 children last year.

The Boys and Girls Club on the Gulf Coast is the largest organization in the state Gulf Coast Chapter Executive Director Sam Burke said Tuesday his organization received about $300,000 in TANF funds last year.

“We stand to be the ones hardest hit,” Burke said. “It’s a major concern. I have gotten no confirmation at this time about what is going to happen, but we are very much in jeopardy.”

Compretta and Baria both said they will be encouraging fellow legislators to take a hard look at the budget modification before a final vote is taken this week.

“We still have a long way to go,” Compretta said. “A lot can happen before this is finalized.”

Requests for comments from Gov. Haley Barbour’s office were not returned by press time Tuesday.

BY Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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