Allegheny County human services chief Cherna specializes in solutions

| Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

Marc Cherna tries to pull off bureaucratic miracles, whether holding court at 7 a.m. with his staff at Ritter's Diner in Bloomfield or working from his Smithfield Street office overlooking the Monongahela River.

As director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services, he can tap 159 sources of federal, state and county money to determine how best to help 210,000 people in need. Yet that money often comes with conflicting regulations, and state budget cuts will trim $15 million from the department's $814 million budget for next fiscal year.

“It's a thankless job, and it's probably the most critical job in the county,” said Fred Thieman, president of The Buhl Foundation, which makes grants to support human services. “If the Department of Human Services fails, you see a reduction in a capable workforce, you see problems in the school, you see an increase in the jail population. If this department of his succeeds, people are healthier, the community is safer.”

Cherna, 61, of Shadyside describes his approach simply: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

He will host public hearings at 3 p.m. Oct. 19 and 10 a.m. Oct. 22 in the Human Services Building, 1 Smithfield St., Downtown, to get comments about how the county spends money and what it might do differently. County officials learned in September that the state will extend them more flexibility in some spending.

Social service groups are being stung by a troubled economy. One Vision One Life, a violence-prevention program, closed last summer; and groups, such as The Pittsburgh Project, that serve youths suffer from financial problems.

“I would not want Marc's job,” said Adrienne Walnoha, CEO of Community Human Services Corp. in Oakland. “He has to make difficult decisions, and we have limited resources and unlimited needs.”

Harvard University, the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators and the University of Pittsburgh have heaped accolades on Cherna and his department for innovation and civic leadership.

Cherna began a data warehouse that shows various human services families receive, in order to better tailor services to individuals. He reorganized the department so that executives in administration, community relations and information management work across its five offices — Aging; Behavioral Health; Children, Youth and Families; Community Services; and Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

Cherna has headed human services for 16 years. He arrived in 1996, hired by three county commissioners to oversee the Department of Children and Youth Services, and inherited the closure of Western Center, which served people with intellectual disabilities.

Since then, the county created the Department of Human Services from several county agencies and closed Mayview State Hospital. Cherna is working with his third county executive; voters replaced commissioners in 2000 with an executive and County Council.

Businessman Jim Roddey of Oakmont led the team that recruited Cherna from New Jersey and became his boss when voters elected Roddey as county executive from 2000 to 2004.

Roddey said he's struck by Cherna's humility, can-do spirit and understanding that many problems can be traced to the collapse of the family.

“He would never try to gloss over any problem,” Roddey said. “There wasn't a problem about his department that he couldn't answer.”

Thieman praises Cherna for finding flexibility in regulation-bound federal and state money so that his department can serve more people.

“The term ‘visionary' is pretty overused and cliched anymore, but it's pretty hard for me to characterize Marc as anything other than that,” he said.

With gray hair and beard, Cherna brightens his typical gray suit with one of many Save the Children ties that people give him.

He grew up in the Bronx, where he played stickball and basketball and worked for his late father's construction company until his former wife, a social worker, suggested that he switch to her field.

“You feel that you're making a difference, that you're leaving the world in a little bit better place,” he said.

He started 35 years ago at a center for emotionally disturbed teens in New Jersey. He worked as an administrator with the United Way of Union County in New Jersey and assistant director with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services.

“Mark will always be thought of as the person who has the tenacity to make sure people were getting the services they need,” said Jane Miller, director of community and government relations for Mercy Behavioral Health in the North Side.

A former heavy smoker, Cherna works out regularly. He acknowledges the stress of being on call 24 hours, for decades, and getting occasional death threats by phone from people angry with the social service system.

“Growing up in New York City, you know how to walk the streets, so I don't get intimidated,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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