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State, federal budget woes concern human services organizations

Federal budget shortfall to cause decline in funding for local energy assistance program

By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

4:54 PM EST, December 15, 2011

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Nearly 5,000 Howard County residents benefited from energy assistance funds last year, but because federal funding is expected to drop, a nonprofit group says it will struggle to provide help.

"The question is, how significant is the cut going to be and when is that decision going to be made?" said Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County, who spoke before members of the county's Annapolis delegation Wednesday at the Association of Community Services meeting in Columbia.

Her concerns were not unlike those of other officials in the room who represent nonprofits and who expressed anxiety over budget pressures, as state and local governments look for ways to balance their budgets.

The question from human service groups is always, "What's going to happen to us?" said state Sen. James N. Robey, who was joined by Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, Del. Guy Guzzone, Del. Frank S. Turner and Del. Gail H. Bates.

"When it comes to Annapolis, it's all about priorities," said Turner, who added that the budget has been squeezed by health care and education costs, pushing out the needs of other services.

Dayhoff told the panel that the state's energy fund is expected to drop from last year's budget of $90 million to an estimated $54 million because of a decline in federal funds.

"Our goal is that nobody gets turned off," she said in an interview. But if funds drop, she said, the nonprofit will have to pay a smaller portion of a resident's bill, which can leave some susceptible to having their power shut off.

Already, seven families have had power shut off because the balance due on their bills is higher than CAC can pay with nonfederal grants. The organization has seen requests from 10 percent more families this year than it did at the same time last year, she said.

Dayhoff said, however, that not everyone who seeks help has gotten to the point where they could be shut off. Residents ask for help with utility bills as low as a couple of hundred dollars up to $8,000.

The nonprofit serves a variety of growing needs in the county, including food, housing emergencies and crisis intervention, and oversees the local centers of a national preschool program.

During Wednesday's discussion, the politicians were also asked to respond to growing concerns in the human services community over what some feel to be the mismanagement of state agencies in light of the Developmental Disabilities Administration's inability to spend $25 million that had to be returned to the general fund. Some health advocates and lawmakers criticized the agency because of a backlog it has created of patients seeking care.

While only the governor can restore the funds to the agency, Delegate Bates said, "money is not being spent the way it's supposed to," mentioning the State Highway Administration, which was the subject of an audit this year that found improper practices in the highway agency's dealings with contractors.

"I'm not sure it's money at this point," Bates said, saying that it's a matter of officials being held accountable.

Guzzone agreed that oversight is an issue but added that less funding is not the answer.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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