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05-20-03: Government funding cuts may reduce local services

The Daily Standard
    Local community service and educational agencies are gearing up to lose money.
    Already dealing with budget reductions from last year and the current operating year, officials are crossing their fingers, hoping the state assembly doesn't balance the upcoming budget by reducing educational and other community outreach grants.
    The Mercer County Educational Service Center, Cheryl Ann Programs, MR/DD, Gateway Outreach Center, Foundations Behaviora  Health Services, O.U.R. Home and the Council on Aging each may face service reductions due to the trimming of state and federal grants used to provide services.
    The Ohio House of Representatives version of the next two-year budget beginning July 1 has eliminated or frozen several grant payments. Though the budget still needs to be settled between the House, Gov. Bob Taft and Senate, local officials aren't anticipating that funds will be restored.
    There is a possibility that Wellness Grant funds to the county will be eliminated, amounting to $80,000, split between four agencies.
    Mercer County Job and Family Services (JFS) Director Dale Borger said the wellness funds are earmarked for teen pregnancy prevention programs and were administered by the state from federal Temporary Care to Needy Families (TANF) funding.
    The proposed House budget removes the local mandate for wellness grant allocations. It also removes the $8,000 for adult protective services, but keeps it as a mandated service, Borger said. TANF funds can be used to support these programs, but those funding levels remain stagnant and could be cut.
    Borger said the situation with state finances could bring many agencies to their point of core operations.
    "Theoretically, wellness can be funded with TANF funds, but I'm still required to do children's services, food stamps, Medicaid," Borger said.
    "We don't know where we are right now ... Something has got to give," he said of the state's funds.
    Borger is concerned the TANF funds altogether may be in question. That funding stream began as a five-year block grant in 1996. For the last two years it has been funded in single year increments.
    The $80,000 earmarked for teen pregnancy prevention from the wellness grant was split between Gateway, OUR Home, Foundations and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
    "In Mercer County, all these funds are being spent on abstinence education type activities," Borger said.
    OUR Home currently uses its $42,000 in wellness funds to put on the GLAD after-school program, which keeps teen-agers busy during the most high-risk times of day, from 3 to 6 p.m., Director Sandy Hartings told The Daily Standard.
    Wellness funds also are used for community campaigns against teen pregnancy, using billboards, newsletters and events for young people.
    OUR Home also is losing the Family Stability Grant with the next fiscal year, worth $105,700, and will have to cut two employees as a result.
    That grant provides services to combat unnecessary out-of-home placements of children, either the result of foster care, delinquency problems or other family issues. The agency provides counseling, diversion teams, therapy, mentor programs and even food and clothing.
    "These are very bad economic times and it's unfair we're getting the brunt of it," Hartings said. "But we'll deal with it."
    The elimination of wellness funding also will eliminate Project Wait, administered by Foundations with $17,000 from the grant. The program focused on pregnancy prevention with Foundations employees going to county schools. Foundations executive Director Brian Engle reported individual schools can continue the program if they want.
    Gateway uses $5,900 in wellness grant funds to support half the cost of the STAR Weekend Retreat for junior high students at the Maria Stein Spiritual Center. That program teaches self-esteem and prevention of tobacco use, substance abuse, domestic violence and premarital sexual relations.
    Gateway Executive Director Steve Keller said the program, in which approximately 100 teens in the county participate, will continue despite the loss.
    The Mercer County Educational Service Center had 2.5 percent cut from its overall budget this year (as did every school system in the state). ESC Superintendent Gene Linton said the alternative schools grant also has been cut 11 percent. The best he hopes for from the state budget is a freeze in levels.
    "A lot of time they say they're holding the schools harmless, but they take away from other areas," Linton said.
    The ESC budget has been flat for the past four years, Linton said, and the agency also may be losing special education preschool dollars and was recently handed the responsibility of paying for its office space, with no extra funding. The county commissioners previously were responsible for providing an office.
    "The per-pupil funding is staying the same, but the grants are where the schools are being cut," Linton said. "Just about every grant we receive has also been cut."
    In MR/DD and Cheryl Ann Programs, Superintendent Mike Overman said a number of small reductions already have taken place with the current year.
    He reported that $2,000 was cut from the Supported Living Program; Case Management Services was reduced $5,000; and the annual residential subsidy amount for infants and adults will be reduced, and has already lost $55,000.
    Overman said health insurance costs rose $75,000 this year and the agency must complete a $100,000 water line project.
    "I don't anticipate any additional dollars, and I hope we don't see reductions next year," Overman said.
    The Mercer County Council on Aging will see a reduction of $30,000 in S&F title 20 funds; a state Block Grant is to be reduced between three and 10 percent; and there will be static funding for the Federal II-B funds, board President Elaine Maurer reported. In November, the council will ask voters for a 0.2-mill property tax increase to help offset the reductions.
    The other agencies have to just wait and see how the budget shakes out.
    "I guess we'll be keeping our fingers crossed for the next couple weeks," ESC Assistant Treasurer Glenn Miller said.


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