2010-03-04 / Local & State

Agencies Still Suffering From Budget Impasse

By Charles Thompson THE (HARRISBURG) PATRIOT-NEWS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – More than half of central Pennsylvania’s human-service agencies are still feeling the financial impact of last year’s state budget impasse.

Last year, human-service agencies throughout Pennsylvania went almost four months without state aid during the standoff. From July 1 through Oct. 9, state money for day cares, drug and alcohol treatment services, emergency shelters, food banks and more was held up while Gov. Ed Rendell and state lawmakers fought over taxes and spending.

A statewide survey of nearly 350 agencies conducted by the United Way of Pennsylvania indicates that the impasse hurt social-service agencies at precisely the time when more residents were turning to them for help. Some are still recovering.

The report showed that 61 percent of the agencies surveyed cut services during the impasse.

The impasse in addition to funding cuts in the 2009-10 budget have left the state’s safety net weaker, said Tony Ross, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania.

“Most agencies were able to struggle back onto their feet’’ after the budget was adopted, Ross said. “But they’re wobbly, and another impasse (like last year’s) could take them out.’’

While a majority of agencies statewide reported curtailing services to clients during the impasse, fewer than one-third of 17 responding agencies from Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties did the same. There was more reliance in the midstate on internal measures like spending down reserves, laying off staff or borrowing.

Tim Whelan, a vice president of the United Way of the Capital Region, said that might be a reflection of the midstate’s more stable economy, which has allowed more nonprofits to build up reserves in the first place, and caused smaller drops in private fundraising than in other areas.

That’s not to say that midstate organizations were immune to the impasse.

A full 50 percent of local respondents said they are still struggling to rebuild their financial reserves.

At the Tri-County Opportunities Industrialization Center, based in Harrisburg, which provides basic-education, literacy and job-readiness classes for adults, some satellite class locations were not opened this year because of the block in state funding.

As a result, the organization has had to build waiting lists for those seeking training that could help them land jobs.

Tina Nixon, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, said her organization has laid off five staff members during the course of this year to help maintain services. Three of them have not been called back.

The Gettysburg-based South Central Community Action Programs, which operates homeless shelters in Gettysburg and Chambersburg, job-training programs and other services, laid off 68 full-time or part-time staffers at the height of the crisis. Most have been hired back.

But that means the agency will pay about $55,000 more in unemployment-compensation costs this year, executive director Megan Shreve said.

The United Way survey said that as a result of those costs, funding cuts and depressed donations from the private sector, agencies are in a weaker position to handle a similar impasse this year. Most respondents predicted their services would start to close within two months of another halt in the flow of state aid.

Ross said human-service providers understand that the state government faces constraints in a weak economy, and that many would be happy just to receive level funding from Harrisburg this year.

But nonprofits couldn’t handle another long stretch without state aid this summer, he said.

Several leaders reached for this story noted the distractions and worry from last summer’s impasse.

“There’s many different levels of hurt,’’ said the YWCA’s Nixon. “It’s telling parents that you can’t enroll any more children in day care ... or your staff walking on eggshells because you know what, we don’t know if we’re going to have jobs tomorrow.’’

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