Nonprofit service agencies brace for federal cuts, shutdown

Community Action Agency in Harford under pressure

April 08, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

As nonprofits across the state brace for what could be deep cuts in federal funding and the possibility of a government shutdown, many are already taking steps to trim services, staff and hours.

The Harford Community Action Agency has instituted a 20 percent reduction in staff hours that will affect its aid programs for needy families, and it will be closed on Fridays for the foreseeable future. The 23 employees at the Edgewood-based agency, which assisted more than 7,000 families last year, are now working a four-day week, all while requests for assistance are on the increase.

"We could not wait," said Judith Mason, executive director of the agency, which is located in Harford's neediest area. "Who knows how long the government will take? We tried to come up with something that would have the least impact on our clients."

Baltimore County's Community Association Network, which addresses poverty-related issues, is also considering a four-day week as early as May 1 and a possible reduction of about a dozen on its staff of 66.

"Those actions would be reactions to cuts this year, and next year is not any prettier for us," said Tony Coffield, executive director. "We are a bare-bones organization, but we are already down to the marrow. We might have to cut as much as 50 percent of our services."

Maryland is home to more than 700 nonprofit service providers, a number that does not include health care agencies, said Henry W. Bogdan, public policy director for the Maryland Nonprofits Association. Most are under increasing pressure to cut back. Nearly half of those agencies have had to reduce salaries, staff and services during the past two years, he said. The luckier ones have had their government reimbursements frozen, not cut, he said.

"Most nonprofits are focusing on the state budget right now and hoping the federal government shutdown doesn't happen," Bogdan said.

More than 1,100 community action agencies across the nation — 17 in Maryland — provide emergency financial assistance to low-income residents in crisis and offer programs aimed at economic self-sufficiency. The core source of their funding comes from the Community Services Block Grant, which has been on the chopping block as Congress debates the federal budget. Mason said she believes her agency could lose half of the money it gets from that grant.

As agencies scramble for funding, reductions could affect the statewide initiatives like the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, local fuel funds, food banks, homeless prevention programs, even the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and GED Plus, providers said.

State officials do not expect to see a marked improvement next year, said Carol Gilbert, director of neighborhood revitalization for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

"This is hurting people already living in poverty and relying on government dollars for help," Coffield said.

Even if Congress reaches a compromise that keeps government operating, service agencies are still likely to feel the effects of the budget negotiations, Bogdan said.

"Service agencies are under more and more pressure to limit services and what they can pay staff," he said. "They are all looking at the next fiscal year with great concerns."

In Harford, the reduction could translate to a $120,000 shortfall, Mason said. While federal monies are not the only source for the agency, there is no well of financial reserves to use while Congress debates, she said. HCCA is operating on $260,000 from the federal budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.

"The cuts they are talking about now are for the year we are in," Mason said. "We have already spent 50 percent of this year's budget. If they cut half, we have no funding through the end of the fiscal year."

There will now be no food pantry on Fridays, a day when residents seek help, especially at the end of the month. The agency gave away nearly 400,000 pounds of food to nearly 3,000 families last year and donated another 137,000 pounds to other faith and community organizations.

Visitors to the pantry on Thursday mostly declined to use their names in the paper, but many said the assistance they receive there is crucial in making ends meet.

Closing on Fridays will also force rescheduling of financial counseling sessions and delays in emergency assistance with utility bills or evictions. The agency says it helped nearly 5,500 families with heating bills last winter and prevented 600 from losing their homes. Mason has seen past-due utility bills as high as $2,500.

"We understand that the federal budget is out of control and there needs to be cuts in spending," Mason said. "We just ask that the cuts be done with fairness and equality. If everybody took the same amount of hits, that would be fair."

The organization's major fundraiser is its annual bull roast, scheduled to be held today Friday in Bel Air. Though the event has nearly sold out, Mason said the proceeds wouldn't come close to filling in the gap.

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