After struggling for six months on donations, the Charles Webb Center for disabled children is once again facing budget woes, a surprise development that state Sen. Robert Ford on Wednesday blamed on bureaucrats at the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
Unlike its previous crisis, the center is in no danger of closing in a few weeks. It has enough state and federal funds to operate for about the next six months, but administrators had thought the center was funded for the entire current fiscal year that began July 1. "We're kind of back to where we started," said Rick Magner, director of the Charleston County Disabilities Board.
Last year, the center was funded for about six months by the department, and it's looking at the same prospect for this fiscal year. "Clearly we can't serve the kids for half of a year," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
Andy Laurent, interim director of the Disabilities and Special Needs Department, attended a press conference Wednesday in Charleston that was called to discuss the situation. "We are in ... a mess. The (agency) budget is down $20 million," Laurent said. And the agency is looking at the possibility of another 4 percent budget cut this month, he said. "That's the struggle we're in," he said. However, he added, "The goal is to maintain the Webb Center."
The department suddenly axed the Webb Center budget in November, giving parents only a few weeks to make alternative day care arrangements for their hard-to-place disabled children.
The community responded with more than $100,000 in donations, which enabled the center to continue operating until the new fiscal year on July 1.
In its last session, the General Assembly ordered the Disabilities and Special Needs Department to restore funding of the Webb Center to at least 80 percent of its full budget. However, the department has taken the legislative language to mean 80 percent of last fiscal year, in which the agency only funded the Webb Center for six months, Magner said.
Local lawmakers worked to restore the center's $300,000 budget for the current fiscal year. However, they learned recently that department administrators sent 60 percent of those funds to a center for disabled kids in Anderson, Ford said. The state senator said he sponsored legislation that restored Webb Center funding. "There was no room to misunderstand this provision," he said.
Ford and state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, both Charleston Democrats, on Wednesday were writing a letter to state Rep. Daniel Cooper, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asking that $180,000 that the department sent to the Anderson center be restored to the Webb Center budget. Cooper is an Anderson County Republican.
Ford said he would contact Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, both Charleston Republicans, about the issue.
Parents learned Nov. 13 that the center would close at the end of the year because of state budget cuts. The department cut $150,000 in annual funding for the center in response to a General Assembly mandate to trim $21.5 million or 11.2 percent from its budget. The state money enables the center to receive matching Medicaid funds to meet its $300,000 budget, officials said. The department said the cuts were made to avoid axing programs such as the residential Coastal Center in Ladson.
The 30 kids at the Webb Center range from infants to age 10 and have developmental problems, such as autism and mental retardation. The center has a staff of eight.
Parents said they would have a hard time finding a place of the same quality to care for their kids while they work. Several said they worried about having to quit their jobs to stay home with their special needs child.