Social service agency faces budget cuts

Josh Echt

Deborah Neuhart has a busy shift as Townhall II emergency service manager, taking calls from people dealing with crises such as suicide and drug problems. She and her team of volunteers direct callers to helpful resources while working the 24-Hour Crisis Hotline for the Kent agency.

“People call back and thank you for saving their lives,” Neuhart said. “Just giving someone a resource is rewarding – it makes your day worthwhile.”

The “worthwhile” services provided by Townhall II could be reduced, pending results of the Ohio social services budget next spring, Townhall II executive director Sue Whitehurst said. Possible cuts mean trouble for the agency’s 10 to 15 programs, which include victim advocacy services and the crisis hotline.

The possible loss of state funding is a result of a 2 percent federal funding block grant cut, Whitehurst said. The block grant cut occurred for several reasons, including Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August and the government’s subsequent provision of financial aid to New Orleans, she said.

“It’s the trickle-down effect,” Whitehurst said. “We don’t know how much will be cut yet until the state comes up with its budget.”

The state of Ohio uses a two-year budget, she said, and by the time the budget for one period is complete, the two-year time frame is almost over.

“Usually we will know what will happen by the end of the fiscal year – around late spring,” said finance director Barbara Deakins. “Our budget is set for this year, but we don’t know what will happen next year.”

Federal cuts are passed on to the states, she said. If the state agencies cannot handle them, they pass the cost reductions onto county and city agencies, such as the 50-employee Townhall II and nearby Coleman Professional Services.

Whitehurst said non-profit agencies are supposed to make a certain profit in order to survive for future program needs.

“If you make any profit, it goes toward the agency’s mission, not people’s pockets,” she said. “Budget projections the last eight to 10 years have shown the block grant funding is unable to keep pace with the cost of business.”

For example, Whitehurst said the 35-year-old social service agency in Kent squeaked out a $4,000 profit in 2004, despite its $2.9 million annual budget.

Subsequently, the agency turns to other means of aid, such as hosting fundraisers and looking for additional grants.

Another problem the agency faces is keeping programs, such as Victims of Crime Advocacy and Family First, alive by supporting them with a hodgepodge of grants and monies, she said.

“Our employees are ‘parts’ of various agency programs,” Whitehurst said. “One counselor may take work with four or five different programs as a result of the different grants involved for each one.”

The obvious way to cut costs, Deakins said, is to cut expenses and find more funding sources.

“We try to get by with what we can,” she said, “and we put a lot of emphasis on cost reduction next year.”

Unfortunately, this means possible layoffs, Whitehurst said.

“There is no good way to reduce costs, because layoffs are a part of infrastructure, like building and heating costs,” she said.

Despite the possible cuts, the city of Kent is doing what it can to help the agency out, said councilman-at-large William Schultz.

“A part of Kent’s yearly budget is set aside for social services,” Schultz said. He also said each agency has to identify a need for its particular programs to get aid.

Charles Bowman, Kent director of community development, said the city of Kent provides a separate line item on the budget for social services. Townhall II receives a certain percentage of the city’s funds.

“They requested $140,000 overall for fiscal year 2005,” Bowman said, “and we were able to provide $120,000.”

He said the agency requested $16,000 for counseling services, of which the city funded $15,000. It also requested $9,000 for the crisis hotline, of which the city funded $8,500.

“Even if the number of requests for funding exceeds allocations, every agency will still get funding of some type,” Bowman said.

Contact public affairs reporter Josh Echt at [email protected].