Donations to the United Way campaign in Howard County are down almost 20 percent from last year.
While the implications aren't clear to many people, the numbers tell a simple story for John Everett, director of the Howard County Association for Retarded Citizens.
HCARC is one of 30 human service agencies in the county that depend on the more than $1 million the United Way awards annually. If giving doesn't improve, Everett said, three of the agency's most vital programs will be cut back or eliminated.
The United Way finances HCARC's employment and day programs and a respite care service, which offers temporary residences to the disabled. The program gives families breaks from the demands of caring for children with special needs.
"If people can't get a break from caring for a disabled child, thequestion is how long is it before the child is going to require institutional care because the family can't handle it anymore," Everett explained.
In Howard County, pledges so far total $1.15 million, compared with $1.4 million at this time last year. Statewide, contributions lag 25 percent behind last year.
The shortfall is especially daunting to local human service agencies, coming after state budget cuts and an $89,430 cut in county grants.
Already, budget cuts haveforced HCARC to reduce respite care service to three weeks a month instead of four.
Like Everett, directors of other human service agencies in the county say they hope pledges pick up in the rest of the campaign, which runs through January.
"When you're already operating on a no-frills budget and it's a well-managed budget, any cuts aregoing to begin to hit services," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots, which runs a homeless shelter and hot line in Columbia. "Forthe rest of this year, it looks like we can manage without cutting any services. With the new fiscal year, we don't know."
Despite theslowdown in United Way contributions, Toby Pitts, the county's volunteer campaign chairman, is optimistic that the county will meet its goal of $2.54 million.
"People have come to the forefront looking for ways they can help, even though they haven't been involved in the past," Pitts said.
He is encouraged by a 25 percent increase in the number of companies participating in the payroll deduction program and by a first-time student United Way campaign that begins in the county schools in January.
"I think that will make up for the shortfall of people who have been with us all along, who feel they can't doas much this year," Pitts said.
For the Visiting Nurses Association, which has lost $15,000 in state money, further cuts would affect the agency's most needy patients, said regional director Judith Horensky.
The association, which cares for 100 patients a month in the county, would have difficulty accepting additional patients who have no health coverage, she said.
"If we look at someone who's going to need care over a long period of time, knowing they don't have the money, we won't be able to take those people," Horensky said.
Unfortunately, she said, many people find themselves making too much to qualify for medical assistance but not enough to pay for health care.
With the possible decrease in United Way money, the Easter Seals Society is exploring its options.
The society, which provides speechand language therapy, stroke and heart attack support groups and services for the disabled, is considering individual solicitations, direct mail, special events and corporate support, said Shelly Pollack, special events director.
However, Everett of HCARC said the impact of the current recession is more widespread than in previous lean times.
"I can remember back in the early '80s, when the recession hit, it felt like people were able to respond through the United Way or
other charities to fill the void," he said. "I think people are soscared and cautious, they're not spending and not giving. That's really the more frightening aspect today."