Health and Human Services Department Director Uma Ahluwalia Credit: via Montgomery County Cable video

Montgomery County Council members sharply criticized a department director Monday after they discovered that the county’s Health and Human Services Department failed to quickly start an anti-gang program.

Members of the council’s health and public safety committees learned the department failed to advertise new staff positions to begin the Safe Space program for more than three months after the council approved more than $474,000 for it in the budget.

Council members said the department should have advertised the positions no later than when the funds became available in July, but instead the staff let the funding lapse a quarter until October. Advertisements for the eight funded positions closed in November, but due to the delay, the program is not expected to begin serving at-risk youths until March or April.

County Executive Ike Leggett had promoted the Safe Space program in a press release about his fiscal 2018 budget proposal. The program aims to provide protected places and services for high risk and gang-affiliated youths in Germantown and areas of eastern Silver Spring.

“This is absolutely egregious as far as I’m concerned,” Council member Nancy Navarro said to the department’s director, Uma Ahluwalia. Navarro later added, “I particularly take offense because we are talking about very vulnerable populations that don’t have a constituency out there advocating for them.”

“This is just ridiculous,” Council member Craig Rice said. “This is unacceptable.”

While the council members present said Ahluwalia typically does her job well, in this instance, they were all frustrated by the delay.

Ahluwalia accepted the blame.

“There is no excuse,” she said. “I will just take the hit and tell you this is unacceptable. You’re right to say this unacceptable. We will strive to do better.”

As the discussion continued, Rice continued to rebuke the delay, reminding county staffers that it’s their job to execute funded budget priorities—even if other departments may have been partly responsible for the issue.

“I should not have to be asking,” Rice said. “I’m sick and tired of seeing this over and over again. … We got to stop this nonsense.”

The delay happened as the county continues to attempt to address growing gang violence, mostly linked to MS-13.

On Nov. 22, police and prosecutors detailed that an unidentified man found decomposing in Wheaton Regional Park had been stabbed more than 100 times and decapitated, and had his heart cut out. The man was found in September, but police believe he might have been killed sometime between last December and March. Police arrested a 19-year-old man in connection with the killing and believe nine others were involved.

The killing was linked to MS-13 and is one of about 20 gang-related homicides in the county over the past two years.

In October, the council approved $840,000 for police and prosecutors to expand their gang suppression efforts. On Monday, council members were examining ways to fund intervention programs to try to protect at-risk youth from joining gangs.

Ahluwalia recommended that the council look at programs that target kids in grades 5 through 8 because that’s when they first begin encountering gang-related issues.

“If you truly want a gang prevention strategy, then it’s good to start in middle school,” she said.

The council reviewed a $175,000 proposal from the Archdiocese of Washington to fund a “resilient families and positive youth” program that would be at parishes in areas with a rise in gang activity—Silver Spring, Montgomery Village, Wheaton and Long Branch.

The nonprofit group Identity proposed expanding its Youth Opportunity Centers—which offers social, academic and workforce development services—to Germantown and Montgomery Village. The nonprofit estimated the cost at about $365,000 per year.

A partnership of three organizations—Latin American Youth Center’s Maryland Multicultural Youth Centers, Lead4Life and EveryMind—proposed creating a $377,000 program to create social and academic activities for 200 low-income youths and their family members who are at-risk for gang activity.

The council members said Monday they would review the programs and consider funding them.