When government funding for social services declined sharply after the 2008 economic meltdown, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board made a critical mistake. Instead of immediately consolidating its highest priority programs for the homeless, mentally ill and disabled, board members put their heads in the sand and went on spending as if nothing had happened.

Given their subsequent "overly optimistic revenue projections," they dug their budget hole even deeper without informing Fairfax County supervisors, who provide 70 percent of CSB's funding, that they were running in the red.

Four years later, CSB is still not living within its means. The Commonwealth of Virginia won't provide any more money, so the agency wants the county to fill next year's $9.4 million budget gap -- in addition to the $4 million supervisors have already set aside in the current FY 2013 budget. County budget shortfalls are expected during the next two years.

CSB has also mismanaged its resources. In May, the Internal Audit Office found that the agency failed to keep track of $1.4 million in insurance and Medicaid reimbursements in the 14 months between July 2009 and September 2010. In June, skeptical supervisors unanimously ordered a second, in-depth audit. In July, the county's Human Services Council identified 13 program cuts at CSB to save $5 million, while urging supervisors to retain four others. This kind of priority-setting is what the agency should have been doing itself over the last four years.

All government-funded social service agencies eventually have to reconcile the inexhaustible demands for taxpayer-funded assistance with the finite resources available to meet them. It is always more difficult to cut programs than to expand them, especially when the recipients are people in real need. But maintaining basic services within existing financial constraints is not only a part of the job -- it is an essential part of it. And with a budget already strained to the breaking point, the job sometimes requires turning people away simply because there's no more money.

Although social service agencies like CSB cannot be expected to solve every human problem or provide costly services they cannot afford, they should be expected to manage the funds they do receive in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, so as to make every dollar count. As the first audit indicated, CSB has a lot of room for improvement.