Cutting to the quick

The county cutbacks have also hit local nonprofit agencies hard, especially since they typically operate on shoestring budgets anyway.

The county manager trimmed 10 percent from the county’s allocations for human-service agencies and 25 percent from the funding for agencies that serve other needs. The county had allocated about $2 million to 56 nonprofits in the current fiscal year.

Services and staff members have been affected by the cuts, says David D. Bailey, president and CEO of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County. A couple of organizations cut part-time staff and are not hurrying to fill vacant positions, which is stressful for the remaining staff, says Bailey.

Staff training and benefits have also been jeopardized.

“Both of those are so critical, because they add a trained staff,” says Bailey. “A staff that’s compensated appropriately is going to be much more productive and a much better provider within that organization.”

The county cuts came after agencies had already submitted their funding requests to United Way, which uses about 250 volunteers in the spring to decide how to allocate the money raised during its fall fund-raising drive. But because United Way raised about the same amount of money last fall as it had the previous year, it can’t replace the money cut by the county, anyway.

Those volunteers will now face hard decisions, since agencies are requesting about $3.6 million — about $297,000 more than is available, Bailey says. (Donations, he notes, are still being accepted.)

For his part, however, Bailey blames the state for the county’s budget cuts.

“It is a problem at the state level, and the ultimate responsibility should be held with the state,” Bailey says. “For them to balance their budget on the back of the county is the inverse of an unfunded mandate.”

One county budget cut had a double impact, leaving licensed practical nurse Ann Rice unemployed and simultaneously jeopardizing the Asheville Lions Eye Clinic.

Although Rice was employed by the Health Center, she worked at the nonprofit clinic on South French Broad Avenue. The situation was “kind of unique,” notes Assistant Health Center Director Nancy Thompson, since the county had no direct control over the clinic. The cut didn’t alter the Health Center’s day-to-day operations, she said.

Since her layoff, Rice and others have volunteered their time to keep the clinic’s doors open. The clinic offers free vision, glaucoma and diabetes screenings and charges a small fee for cholesterol screenings.

“I have been very grateful for the 14 years I’ve had with the county,” says Rice. “I do not hold any ill will against the county. They’ve been very good to me and certainly to this agency. My main concern is funding to this agency, and we’ve made some progress with the county on this issue.”

That progress came after Lions Club member Edward Krause, a lawyer, told the commissioners at their March 6 meeting that the clinic needs a nurse to perform effective screenings. He also noted that the Lions Club (in conjunction with the Health Center) screened 1,564 children this fiscal year in addition to the thousands of adults seen by the Lions Eye Clinic.

After meeting with the county manager last week, Krause says the county offered to allocate $32,000 a year for the next two years, starting July 1. And while Krause says he found the meeting to be productive, he also notes that the amount offered is $8,000 per year less than the county had been allocating for the position. He wonders whether the clinic can find a nurse at the reduced salary.

But Krause doesn’t think the eye clinic will close, adding, “I think the people in the community are going to come through and help us.”

One agency director worries about the effects the budget crisis will have on the community.

“The economic impact of the county budget crisis on the most at-risk members of the community creates greater need,” observes Valerie Collins, executive director of Helpmate. “When talking about cutting nonprofits, you’re talking about cutting a hole in the safety net of our society.”

At Helpmate, which offers shelter and services to victims of domestic violence, the $2,900 cut in its $29,000 county allocation may mean the agency won’t be able to afford raises or insurance for staff members, Collins says.

“It’s kind of a long-term ripple effect for us. Any loss in funding can decrease the chance of obtaining quality counselors and advocates for our clients,” Collins notes. “The services will get done, but any small hit like that could represent, in the long run, a loss in staff development and an [inability] to retain staff to help fill our mission.”

Meals on Wheels, which delivers hot meals to 440 homebound adults, lost $5,200 of its $52,000 budgeted allocation. That means the agency may have to dip into its reserves to end the fiscal year in the black, says Executive Director Sarah Oram.

She also worries that the commissioners will further cut nonprofit allocations in the coming year. That could prevent Meals on Wheels from adding needed routes. Even though the agency added two new routes this year (in Arden and Shiloh), there are still 54 people on a waiting list for meal delivery, Oram says.

“I think this move is penny-wise and pound-foolish for Meals on Wheels,” Oram posits. “If we don’t serve these people hot meals in their homes, many of them end up in nursing homes at county expense.”

Twenty-five of the agencies that suffered funding cuts serve children, notes Liz Huesemann, executive director of Children First, a community effort that brings together organizations, resources and individuals to improve the lives of children and their families.

Children First (which lost $22,500 of its $90,000 allocation) hosted a meeting in mid-March to help those agencies put their heads together and deal with the reductions. “There was really a sense that people really wanted to come together to work together on this collaboratively,” says Huesemann.

One of Children First’s programs is the Emma Family Resource Center, which offers emergency assistance, a food pantry, parenting classes and other services primarily directed at families with young children in the Emma community. Those services will continue, Huesemann says, but the county cut hinders Children First’s ability to grow.

–T.R.

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