Monday, December 03, 2001

Social services cuts coming

Budget crunch could eliminate whole agencies

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Carl Berden and his son were one day from being thrown onto the streets when he walked into the offices of ACT — Accountability & Credibility Together.

        The organization, with its $3.1 million budget from Hamilton County, paid Mr. Berden's back rent, gave him job training and helped put his life back on track. The organization has offered immediate assistance for nearly 5,000 people, along with helping them stay off the welfare rolls.

        Now ACT is in danger of landing on the street.

        ACT's entire budget is on the chopping block as part of $5.8 million in proposed program cuts in Hamilton County. County officials also allowed $33 million in social service contracts to expire in June.

        Butler County is in a similar financial jam, cutting $1.7 million from its $20 million social services budget.. Warren and Clermont counties may have to make small cuts to their to their social service spending.

        Fewer state welfare reform dollars coming into Ohio's 88 counties have forced dramatic cuts in social service programs. Larger, more urban counties are hit harder.

        In particular, the state is diverting money that would typically be sent to counties for welfare reform programs to help meet its court-ordered mandate to spend more on education. Other welfare reform dollars are being used by the state for such programs as Head Start for preschool children.

        “The people making these cuts don't know what it feels like to be evicted in the cold,” said Mr. Berden, 39, who now lives in Elsmere, Ky. “When you get an eviction notice, it's nothing to laugh at. People's lives are at stake.”

        Lora Jollis helped create ACT as the welfare reform executive of Hamilton County's Department of Job and Family Services before being promoted to assistant director of the agency.

        She called shutting down ACT the “most sad and difficult thing I've ever done.”

        “Without organizations like ACT, we are back to one-size-fits all programs that are not going to look closely at people's individual needs,” Ms. Jollis said. “That's a luxury now that we can't afford.”

        Jeanette Berry's new life is a result of that “luxury.” The 33-year-old Silverton woman was laid off from the IRS processing center in Covington in April.

        After job training and getting emergency rent money from ACT, Ms. Berry was hired by the organization and now does computer training.

        “These programs enhance some of the skills you already have and make you feel viable again,” Ms. Berry said. “It offers you the tool to feel more secure in saying: I'm qualified for this.”

        Other possible program cuts in Hamilton County include $1.7 million from Community Link, which helps people overcome barriers to employment such as substance abuse or child-care problems.

        The county also has proposed cutting $1 million for three programs: Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, Friends of the Children and Every Child Succeeds.

        “What is so terribly sad is that at the very time more and more people need those services, we can't provide them,” Ms. Jollis said.

        Bruce Jewett, director of Butler County's Department of Job and Family Services, said the cuts have the potential to destroy the progress made in the past five years.

        Mr. Jewett said the state adequately funded welfare reform for a while, and gave individual counties the freedom to create their own programs. That approach worked, he said, but those gains won't last long if the money dries up.

        “If we somehow find the funds to support these programs at adequate levels in the next fiscal year, we can recover,” Mr. Jewett said. “If not, we're really talking about undoing the success of welfare reform.”

        Butler County commissioners last week cut 27 social service contracts, including a money management program, computer training, and a program to get those on public assistance involved in community councils.

        Jeffrey Diver, executive director of Supports to Encourage Low-Income Families (SELF), a nonprofit community action agency, said the consequences will be devastating.

        “The safety net is eroding,” Mr. Diver said. “Our county leaders are pointing to (the) state, but that doesn't help someone who is hungry or without heat or without hope.

        “Our contract was about restoring hope in communities. We went well beyond trying to take a Band-Aid to cure a societal ill. We were trying to get to the root and make people more engaged in community life so they can change their community.”

        Cuts in Warren and Clermont counties won't be as severe.

        Warren County never applied for short-term welfare dollars.

        In Clermont County, some job training programs likely will be scaled back, but program cuts might be offset by scaling back other spending, said Steve Ball, deputy director of employment services for the Clermont County Department of Job and Family Services.

        “Perhaps we can purchase less equipment and maintain our level of services by dealing with these things by administrative reorganization.”

        Suzanne Burke, who will take over Hamilton County's social service department next month, said the cuts are more severe in larger counties because the state often took unused welfare reform money from smaller counties and shared it with larger counties. That practice was all but eliminated this year — Hamilton County had applied for $40 million in redistributed funds and received $3 million.

        “We used to benefit from smaller counties not having as great a need as the big counties,” Ms. Burke said.

        None of that matters to someone who is unemployed and worrying about how to pay a heating bill and buy food for their children, said Tranice Harshaw, a 26-year-old Westwood woman who went through the ACT program.

        “These programs help people who are trying to make a change in their lives,” she said. “They let you know you can do it.”

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