New Community Services Department will manage Boone County health and social services funds

Friday, January 17, 2014 | 8:55 p.m. CST; updated 9:27 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 18, 2014

COLUMBIA — Starting a new job is never easy, but Community Services Department Director Kelly Wallis really has her work cut out for her.

She's in charge of building the new county department — which will manage revenue from the children's services sales tax and other health funds — from scratch.

"I've felt like a sponge these last couple weeks," Wallis said of her first days on the job, which started Jan. 6.

Besides creating department policy and learning the ins and outs of county government, Wallis is still wrapping her mind around all the funds she has to manage. Those include the estimated $6.5 million to be generated annually by the  new sales tax, the $500,000 from BJC HealthCare's lease on Boone Hospital Center along with up to $40,000 from domestic violence court fees. There is also $125,000 in social services funding from the county every year.

The Community Services Department was created so that all this money could be in one place, County Commissioner Karen Miller said.

Wallis is currently the department's only employee, responsible for driving its vision and mission.

"I can't give her advice on how to build this department," Miller said. "I've never built a department."

However, Miller did provide Wallis with the materials she needed to get started: a binder stuffed with the Children's Services Board's meeting minutes, policies and biographies.

She will help inform and manage the nine-member board appointed last year to determine the best use of the sales tax money. The board, which consists entirely of volunteers, will hold community input meetings to identify the most important issues.

Prior to the new department, the Health Department distributed the domestic violence and social services funds. The hospital lease money has been accumulating in a dedicated fund for three years waiting to be used, Miller said. There is currently about $1.5 million in the fund, Wallis said.

Revenue from the quarter-cent children's services sales tax will be a major focus of the department. The tax, which is intended to fund health and safety services for children 19 years and younger and their families, has generated around $4 million since it went into effect last April, Wallis said.

She will also develop a process by which service providers can submit funding proposals and will be the first to see each proposal that comes through.

The tax is subject to strict guidelines on how it can be spent. In general, Wallis said she wants to see it go toward providers who have a proven positive impact on children and the community. But she is also open to taking chances on pilot programs that have promising research to back them up.

The public can expect complete transparency from the department about where the money is going, Wallis said. Providers will be closely monitored to ensure that outcomes are positive and Wallis will submit an annual report explaining where funds were distributed and what the outcomes were.

As a litigation attorney for the Missouri Department of Social Services, Wallis saw firsthand the struggle it can take to reunify children in state custody with their families.

"The combination of being a nurse and an attorney and having worked for social services made her stand out for this department," Miller, who was part of a committee that hired her, said.

Although managing the children's services sales tax revenue will undoubtedly make up an important part of her job, Wallis will have the board as her guide. Miller said the real challenge will be managing the other three health funds, which will be entirely up to Wallis.

"We want to make sure we're looking at all the needs of the community," Wallis said.

Some of the money from the $125,000 social services fund could be used to cover costs not eligible for coverage under the children's services sales tax, such as transportation to and from counseling sessions, Wallis said.

Miller would like to see some of the funding go toward caring for senior citizens.

"People always gravitate toward taking care of a child, but they don't always gravitate toward an old person," Miller said.

At this time next year, Wallis hopes to have a "more definitive idea of where funds will be spent," she said. Some funds will likely be spent this year, Miller said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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