Budget woes leave little holiday cheer

Public agencies search for ways to cover lack of funding for needy families

Although jokes were traded about organizing BINGO games for profit, the mood was grim on Tuesday as 23 officials from public agencies met to discuss “bloody” budget cuts.

The possibility that “working poor” families, senior citizens, and children would be left unserved dominated the monthly meeting of the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families.

“We can’t sit back and say ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that,’ we have to think about what we can do instead of all the sorrows that have been put upon us,” said Donita Huskey-Wilson, director of the county juvenile department.

Huskey-Wilson has lost $25,000 from her annual budget and is being forced to lay off one of her five case workers. But even worse is the financial plight facing the Mid-Columbia Center for Living.

Sharon Guidera, executive director for the Center, said in November state providers of mental health and addiction counseling services were targeted by emergency legislative action for $30 million in budget reductions. She said that move dropped her agency’s current budget for fiscal year 2002-03 by $473,600, eliminating some services to high-risk or disabled individuals altogether. In addition, four vacancies on her 63-person workforce will not be filled anywhere in the foreseeable future since even more programs will be on the chopping block if voters do not approve a three-year income tax hike in January.

Guidera said one out of every three adults in the United States will experience a mental health or addictions disorder — and the loss of services could actually backfire since people unable to cope with life stresses independently will then require even more costly hospitalization or law enforcement intervention.

For example, Guidera said one of her clients in her early twenties has been diagnosed with Schizo-affective Disorder. Since the subject’s symptoms have been treatment resistant in the past it has become very important to maintain her moods with psychiatric services. Because of that intense interaction, Guidera said the subject is now hospitalized only once per year instead of a history that includes three visits annually.

“There is a human cost issue here, if these people are not treated they are not going to be successful with school, work and family life,” said Guidera.

She is also concerned about the “trickle down” financial problems created for other agencies when the Center has to eliminated subcontracted services. One of these care providers is the Columbia Gorge Center, which helps about 100 developmentally disabled individuals with independent work and living skills.

Patty Elkins, director of the Gorge Center, said her own budget is slated to be slashed by 66 percent if the January measure fails and that means layoffs for some of her 87 employees and the subsequent loss of clientele that could make it difficult to qualify for state manufacturing contracts of safety vests and other products.

“There is such as huge ripple effect here,” she said.

Another agency that networks closely with the Center is The Next Door, Inc., which has already lost two shelter beds for foster children, a $85,000 reduction in its annual budget of about $3 million. In addition, funding cuts have necessitated that the agency’s New Parent Services program narrow its focus on only the neediest families of newborns.

Robert Johnson, executive director, is anticipating that a further loss of revenue will force the elimination of up to three of his 80 employees and the loss of at least two foster families due to lowered monthly payments for expenses.

“Our primary obligation is to the children in our care and all the involved agencies will now have to work more closely together,” he said.

Joella Dethman, Commission on Children and Families director, said both voters and the legislature need to be aware that there is a “human face” on these massive reductions. Her agency has already been hit with a $131,883 funding loss in the current fiscal year. One of the Commission’s outreach organizations, Youth and Family Services, has been forced to give up its school drug/alcohol prevention presentations and an array of resource and referral programs.

“Every cut made at each service group in our community will deepen the wound inflicted on our most vulnerable children and families, including seniors,” she said. “The very same people that are bleeding from lack of affordable housing, family wage jobs, access to adequate health care and quality education are being asked to shoulder the entire burden.”

The dire news about local service programs was compounded at the Dec. 3 meeting by a financial presentation from Rene Dubois, who oversees programs in Hood River for the state Department of Human Services. She said the income levels will have to be raised for area families to qualify for some programs and reductions will be made in Medicaid payments to two area senior care centers and to child foster care and daycare providers.

Rick Eggers, assistant superintendent of the Hood River County School District, said the local education system had already absorbed a budget shortfall of $1.2 million this year but anticipates another $706,000 in needed cuts if the January referendum fails.

“Next year the Hood River School District will not look the same as it does today and that’s just a reality,” said Eggers.

But he and the other service providers are determined to find as many ways as possible to streamline operations and not let their clientele “slip through the net.”

“We need to sit down and figure out how we’re going to work with the families who are going to be impacted by the system,” Dubois said.

Meanwhile, the Hood River County Health Department is pondering how its already tight budget can be stretch to cover an increased demand for services. Ellen Larsen, director, said residents untreated for mental illness or substance addictions are statistically more likely to engage in “risky” behaviors which could necessitate more family planning, sexually transmitted disease testing and sex abuse examinations.

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