Monday, October 20, 2014

Anti-poverty programs face the axe

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/15/2013

Federal budget cuts, and the promise of deeper gashes to come, have prevented one Ottawa-based agency from getting a head start on planning for the future needs of the community and those in surrounding counties.

East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., which provides a host of programs to thousands of residents — from Head Start to weatherizing homes to food pantries — has seen its budget slashed from about $18.4 million in 2010 to a projected $4.8 million in 2014, according to an ECKAN report.

Federal budget cuts, and the promise of deeper gashes to come, have prevented one Ottawa-based agency from getting a head start on planning for the future needs of the community and those in surrounding counties.

East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., which provides a host of programs to thousands of residents — from Head Start to weatherizing homes to food pantries — has seen its budget slashed from about $18.4 million in 2010 to a projected $4.8 million in 2014, according to an ECKAN report.

From his office at ECKAN’s headquarters, 1320 S. Ash St., Richard Jackson, longtime chief executive officer, has reviewed the numbers. And the bottom line doesn’t look good, he said. Especially under the cloud of a federal sequester.

The “sequester” or “sequestration” is a group of cuts to federal spending that took effect March 1. The sequester originally was passed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, better known as the debt ceiling compromise.

It was intended to serve as an incentive for the U.S. Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to come to a deal to cut $1.5 trillion over 10 years. If the committee had done so, and Congress had passed it by Dec. 23, 2011, then the sequester would have been averted, political analysts have said.

But that didn’t happen.

So what does that mean for local agencies like ECKAN that rely on those federal dollars? Deeper program and staffing cuts, Jackson, the agency’s CEO for 44 years, said.

The sequestration would compound federal funding cuts the agency already has endured in recent years, he said.

On March 1, the sequestration slashed funding to such domestic programs as Community Service Block Grant, weatherization, Head Start, fuel assistance and many others, Jackson said. The federal government has chosen to cut programs that are essential to ECKAN’s network and has deemed them discretionary income, he said.

“If we see a 50-percent cut in Community Service Block Grant funds, which is a possibility, then we would have to close some of our centers,” Jackson said. “And nobody wants to do that. If that happens, we would probably have one person be in charge of two or three counties.”

Block grant funds are necessary to keep the agency’s centers operating, he said. The centers serve Franklin, Osage, Anderson, Coffey, Miami, Douglas and Lyon counties.

The centers provide a variety of case-management services, including career counseling, aptitude assessment, financial planning and other services.

SEQUESTER

As for the sequester’s effect on the agency’s 2013 budget, a 5.1 percent cut would be “squeezed and magnified” into the remaining seven months, according to an ECKAN financial report.

Federal across-the-board spending cuts would continue during the next nine years, which would affect the local agency and others like it across the nation as the sequester looks to slash another $1.1 trillion from the federal budget during that time span, the report said.

The 69-year-old ECKAN leader said federal budget cuts and sequestration already have led to $1,232,885 in cuts to ECKAN programs, according to an ECKAN report provided by Jackson. Broken down by program, $935,733 has been cut from the agency’s weatherization program, $149,152 has been slashed from Section 8 Housing, $118,000 has been eliminated from Head Start, and $40,000 trimmed from Community Service Block Grant funds.

The cuts have led to a reduction in staffing in all these areas as well, Jackson said.

Staffing has been cut from 11 people to four in weatherization, 54 to 53 in Head Start, 22 to eight in the block grant program, four to two in housing, and seven to four in administration, according to the ECKAN report. All told, the ECKAN staff has been trimmed from 98 employees to 72, the report said.

The weatherization program, which has taken the largest hit, enables qualified individuals to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient, according to ECKAN literature.

ECKAN’s weatherization program assisted 423 families in 14 counties — including 29 families in Franklin County — from January through September 2012, according to the most current ECKAN figures available. The weatherization program also creates jobs for contractors, Jackson said.

HEAD START

Though Head Start, which helps qualified, preschool-age children, also saw its funding slashed, Jackson said ECKAN is committed to not eliminating any children from the program.

“What we might have to do is cut some Head Start year-round programs back to nine-month programs,” Jackson said. “Emporia [in Lyon County] is a 12-month program, but the enrollment isn’t there to justify it being open in the summer. So we might cut that one back to nine months.”

The budget cuts, thus far, have not forced any major changes at ECKAN’s Head Start center in Ottawa, Jackson said.

“The Head Start program [in Ottawa] already is a nine-month program,” he said.

Last year in Franklin County, ECKAN served 55 children in the Head Start program and 33 children in the Early Head Start Children program. Program-wide in seven counties, ECKAN served 325 children in Head Start and 173 children in Early Head Start Children.

Some of the 1,000 community assistance programs nationwide have opted to cut children from their Head Start programs in a move to try and influence Congress to reinstate funds for the program, Jackson said. But he said the local ECKAN agency would not be among them.

“I do not think cutting kids from the program will have any effect on Congress, because I don’t think they wanted to fund the program to begin with,” Jackson said. “We are committed to not cutting kids from Head Start.”

Thus far, ECKAN has not cut staffing positions in Franklin County, but some open positions — such as the agency’s volunteer coordinator position vacated last year by Lisa Rivers — will not be filled at this time, Jackson said.

Some of the options for dealing with federal budget cuts, Jackson said, include reducing staff, using other agency funds to cover cuts in Section 8 Housing, scaling back work hours, reducing year-round programs and looking for other sources of funding through government and private foundations.

“With the recession and the economy, the need for our services is greater than ever before,” Jackson said. “Despite these budget cuts, we are committed to breaking the cycle of poverty and helping people become self-sufficient.”

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