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Those in human services express doubt, concern over Pa. budget

September 30, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Megan Shreve has spent the past three months worrying and struggling to provide services to people in need.

A Pennsylvania budget agreement announced Sept. 18 gave her hope that funding for human services would resume.

But now, as details for the $27.9 billion budget continue to be hammered out, the Associated Press is reporting that some House Democrats are saying they're against plans to generate new revenue. Democrats hold 104 seats in the House and need 102 votes to pass the budget, while their Republican counterparts are nearly uniform in their opposition, the AP reported.

This means some of the services Shreve oversees as executive director of South Central Community Action Programs (SCCAP) remain unfunded and unavailable to clients. Ones that are open, like the Franklin County Shelter for the Homeless, are only operating because of community donations and no-interest loans.

"You feel like you're at your breaking point," Shreve said.

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The state owes the Franklin County government about $8.5 million and its five school districts tens of millions of dollars in aid checks.

"I'm concerned this deal they announced may not be a deal at all," said Bob Thomas, chairman of the Franklin County Commissioners.

He predicted that counties will face additional challenges, like having their bond ratings negatively affected. The commissioners have not borrowed money because they traditionally hold on to more money in reserves than some other counties.

If the state budget impasse continues into November, the commissioners might need to obtain a "tax and revenue anticipation note" (TRAN) to borrow money, Thomas said.

The county tentatively plans to continue compensating for state funding shortfalls in full through Oct. 15, according to human services administrator Richard Wynn.

At that point, payments to human services providers would be delayed by 30 days. On Nov. 15, a date Wynn called "very critical," the nonmandated and nonessential services could be suspended unless the county takes out a loan.

"People are scared. ... We're in uncharted territory," Wynn said.

Waynesboro Area School District would have received at least $2 million in state aid by now if the budget had passed by June 30 as required, Waynesboro's Business Administrator Caroline Dean said.

The school district can continue to pay bills through late November, Dean said.

"Beyond that, I'm going to have to look at a TRAN to tide us over. It's going to start getting critical as time goes on," she said.

Franklin County Head Start laid off 12 full-time employees in August and cut 90 enrollment positions for children.

"We're continuing in a holding pattern. Nothing is going to change for us until there's a state budget," said Carol Sutton, Franklin County Head Start's director.

Financial assistance from Summit Health allowed Franklin County's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to continue operating under SCCAP's direction. Despite community contributions like those from Summit Health, SCCAP needed to lay off 68 of its 108 employees in August. Other workers are looking for alternate employment because SCCAP doesn't have money to pay them.

"Now (remaining) staff are at the place where it's been six weeks. How long can you stay at no or reduced pay?" Shreve asked.

She said the state's delay and resulting suspension of aid checks create a major problem at an awful time.

"When we open the food pantry, the line is around the building," Shreve said.

"Every day is another day in Hell" for agencies like SCCAP, Wynn said. "They can only raise so many dollars."

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