Not even nap-time could keep 6-month-old Gabriela Cicolini and her mother, Josephine, from hurrying to the board of commissioners meeting Tuesday afternoon.
"I knew I had to speak up," Josephine Cicolini said in an interview later.
Near the end of the two-hour hearing, Gabriela arrived at the public comment microphone in her mother's arms. And as the infant peered at commissioners from under her yellow-flowered headband, her mother advocated for a county-funded program that has helped Gabriela â"" born with Down syndrome â"" learn to roll over, reach out and grasp, and strengthen her legs for crawling someday.
"It is so important to these children that they have early and constant intervention. Please leave the program as it is," Cicolini said, speaking through tears during part of her address to commissioners.
The Tuesday hearing marked the early stages of a county survey of its grant programs. Before commissioners make up their minds about whether to trim, outsource or even eliminate some of the programs, they asked for an in-depth look at the services. During the next few weeks, they'll listen to agency representatives give hourlong overviews of their groups, which range from the Department of Aging to TransIT Services of Frederick County.
The first two agencies up were the Frederick County Child Advocacy Center and the county's Developmental Center, which runs the infants and toddlers program that has provided therapy to Gabriela.
At the meeting, Commissioners President Blaine Young emphasized that officials haven't drawn conclusions yet. The only major decision they've made so far was to eliminate pensions and retirement health benefits for new grant-funded employees.
Years ago, a previous group of commissioners agreed to let grant-funded employees in on the county benefits and salary scale. However, over the years, while county paychecks and benefit costs have crept upwards, grant funding has budged little. That leaves the county shouldering more and more of the burden.
While many grants are only awarded on the condition that the county pitches in matching funds, the amount Frederick County contributes surpasses the requirements by about $6.1 million, according to staff reports.
With the future uncertain, officials have to think about scaling back, Young said.
"We need to prepare ourselves in case we deal with any cuts from the state or federal government," he said at the end of Tuesday's meeting.
But the more than $700,000 in grants collected through the infants and toddlers program saves the county money rather than adding a hidden cost, Monica Grant, director of the Developmental Center, told commissioners.
The state's department of education must make sure that the county offers public education to children with disabilities from the time they are born. So cutting the infants and toddlers program wouldn't let the county off the hook for the roughly $2.8 million it budgeted to spend on the Developmental Center in Fiscal Year 2012, Grant said.
To Cicolini, of Lake Linganore, the infants and toddlers program is part of what makes Frederick County home. If it went away, she said her family probably would move. The program offers therapy, education and family support for Frederick County children who are younger than 4 and have a developmental disability.
The help offered by the program isn't easily summarized, Cicolini said.
"After six very short and long months, these people are like an extension of my family," she said.
With a weakened immune system and heart surgery leaving Gabriela unable to go out, a therapist even visited her home to work with her. And because of her early start in therapy, Gabriela is hitting the developmental benchmarks of a typical 6-month-old, Cicolini said a doctor recently told her.
"This is something Frederick County should be proud of," she said in an interview after the Tuesday commissioners meeting. "I know that Gabriela is growing and developing and maturing the way that she is because of the team of professionals in the infants and toddlers program here in Frederick County."
Copyright 2011 The Frederick News-Post. All rights reserved.
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