Agencies protest United Way cuts

The Baltimore Sun

Some of the Baltimore region's best-known nonprofits are protesting deep cuts in their funding from the United Way of Central Maryland - saying they are being forced to reduce staff and programs with little notice.

"We're scampering to find resources to fund programs," said Stan A. Levi, the executive director of Family and Children's Services, a regional social services agency with 20 programs in 14 locations that is due to lose $500,000 of United Way funding as of Jan. 1. Levi said his group will be cutting several staff jobs and moving from its Woodlawn office in Baltimore County to save on rent.

The YWCA of Greater Baltimore is to lose about 12 percent of its budget because of funding cuts.

"YWCA is one of the largest providers of shelter for women and children. We're shocked that United Way of Central Maryland is not partnering with us," said CEO Dawn Fisk Thomsen.

Others facing cuts include the Boy Scouts of Central Maryland, four programs for developmentally disabled people and a raft of smaller groups that fight domestic violence and sexual abuse and that help immigrants adjust.

The Park Heights Family Support Center in the 4200 block of Pimlico Road in lower Park Heights is also at risk, Levi said. Several hundred teen mothers take their babies there annually as they work to earn a high school equivalency degree and learn how to better care their families. It takes $90,000 a year of United Way money to keep the program afloat.

The United Way's president and chief professional officer, Larry E. Walton, said many agencies are getting more money than before, while the total amount distributed remains the same. The idea, he said, is to use money on the best programs to make a more lasting impact.

The funding change, designed to promote more permanent, measurable results, has been discussed for several years, but the amounts that local groups would receive weren't announced until Nov. 28.

They take effect Jan. 1 - making it hard for many agencies to adjust to cuts that fall in the middle of their budget years.

The nonprofit groups' complaints about a change in the United Way's formula for distributing money to community programs has reached the point that one local elected official - Howard County Executive Ken Ulman - is wondering whether county employees should continue to support the umbrella charity's annual campaign.

Howard County is the only jurisdiction to have questioned continued participation in United Way drives, but if other major employers were to raise the same concerns, it could have an impact on the organization's finances.

Ulman said he heard several speakers complain about funding losses at a budget hearing last week and was disturbed because he was hoping the county could help expand services to the needy instead of filling budget gaps created by the new United Way formula.

"Should we in Howard County government and residents be participating [in United Way]? I've got questions about further participation," Ulman said. "It's a hot issue."

Political leaders in other area jurisdictions have not heard similar complaints, their spokesmen said, but some agencies are frantically searching for more donations or urging United Way donors to designate their gifts for specific uses.

The Boy Scouts of America in Baltimore sent boosters a letter noting that United Way contributions have dropped $300,000 since 2002 and urged donors to complain. It also urged supporters to direct their United Way gifts for the Scouts.

"We're all reeling from this," said Jodi Finkelstein, director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County.

But Peggy Mainor, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, a nonprofit organization that coordinates care for sexually abused children, said she's delighted with the $127,000 in new money her group is getting.

She said her group is starting a public education program in Baltimore based on one used in Vermont that has significantly reduced child sexual abuse there.

Walton said that Anne Arundel County schools are getting $106,000 in new money. At least 12 other recipients will see their funding rise - many serving the same populations as groups that lost funding, he said.

The St. Vincent DePaul Center of Baltimore is getting $150,000 more to combat domestic violence, for example, and Health Care for the Homeless, also in Baltimore, is getting $180,000 in new money. The Legal Aid Bureau is getting $83,550 more and the Women's Law Center, another regional group, is getting $56,000 more.

Overall, the United Way is giving out $10.5 million over 2 1/2 years.

Agencies losing money say that the United Way grants play a vital role in their operations.

Levi, of Family and Children's Services, said his agency has used most of the money it is losing to supplement in-home services to the elderly. The YWCA is losing $333,000, while Jim Milham, director of field services for the Boy Scouts, said his group is to lose $100,000.

"It's going to affect the overall impact of the whole program," but especially inner-city Scouts, which Milham said are the agency's traditional focus.

Anita Terry, communications director for the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, said the organization is losing $245,000, which will affect inner-city programs, anti-violence education and help for girls whose mothers are in prison.

The United Way's new impact areas are labeled "Basic Needs, School Readiness, Family Safety and Youth Achieving Potential." One new grant to Health Care for the Homeless could exemplify what United Way is trying to do.

Jeff Singer, president and CEO of the group, said the $180,000 in new funding from United Way will be a major help.

"Our mission isn't to put Band-Aids on people's problems," Singer said. Instead of giving temporary help and then seeing people return to the streets, the new funds will enable a social worker to "assess people's needs, develop a plan and implement it."

"In the long run, having structural solutions to the problems of poverty and homelessness will make charitable contributions go a lot farther," Singer said.

It was unclear whether cuts would fall harder on Howard County residents than those in other jurisdictions. Howard government employees contributed about $83,000 to the United Way in 2005 out of $2.3 million in pledges from county-based employers.

Walton contended that, overall, money for services within Howard County won't decline, but Howard officials deny that.

"There's no question we are receiving less money," said Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county's Department of Citizen's Services. United Way contributions to Howard-based agencies are down 49 percent in one year, she said, and about 60 percent since 2002.

One Howard group, Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, is benefiting from the change - getting $30,000 in United Way funds for the first time.

But several other county charities are losing money they were counting on, officials said.

Finkelstein, of the Howard domestic violence center, said her United Way funding is to drop from $43,000 to $25,000. The program is also losing $35,000 in state grants, she said.

Walton said he's prepared to meet with Ulman in January, but he added that Howard shouldn't suffer under the new system.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

An article about the United Way in Saturday's editions misspelled the name of Danita Terry, the communications director for the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland.
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