Thursday, October 7, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The Ehrlich administration yesterday created a community outreach agency dedicated to pooling state resources for nonprofit groups.

The Office of Community Initiatives, which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. created by executive order, unites the staffs and functions of three other agencies to provide services for nonprofits. It will not need any additional tax revenue to operate, administration officials said.

“Community-based organizations have a track record of helping good people overcome great struggles,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican. “Our new office will unify government’s community and volunteer resources, making it easier, not harder, for them to fulfill this important mission.”

His executive order circumvents the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to create the new agency, whose responsibilities include:

• Coordinating community and volunteer activities.

• Developing the governor’s policy agenda for improving community programs.

• Reviewing legislation to ensure that community groups are given equal access under the law.

• Conducting a review of state programs to identify legislative and regulatory barriers that impede the delivery of community-based services.

Betsy Nessen Merrill, who will head the agency, said the effort will be of great benefit to faith-based and community groups.

“It is very exciting,” said Mrs. Merrill, who comes to the state government from Johns Hopkins University, where she was assistant development director for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. “I think it gives us an opportunity of better serving the citizens of Maryland.”

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said he will oversee the agency to ensure it is “consistent with the goals of the administration.”

“Right now, we have various organizations and we are trying to streamline and coordinate the process,” he said.

House Minority Whip Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell lauded Mr. Ehrlich’s executive order bypassing the General Assembly, which had stifled the governor’s funding plan for an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the past two years.

“I think it is a great initiative,” said Mr. O’Donnell, a Republican who represents parts of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. “I think it really makes sense. It is about time government figures out how we can become more efficient and effective in helping people, and that is what this office does.”

Administration officials said the new agency will not need legislative approval in combining the Office on Community Affairs, the Office on Service and Volunteerism, Volunteer Maryland and other groups.

Robert K. Gehman, executive director of the Baltimore-based Helping Up Mission, said he hopes the agency helps the 170 homeless men his group feeds, houses and counsels each year.

“I think that it is going to help us in the area of volunteers, drug treatment, maintenance of buildings, legal help and medical help,” Mr. Gehman said. “And all the services needed for a homeless drug addict.”

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