State budget cuts rock JP’s social services sector

October 24, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Still unclear how public services, works will be affected

A “bloodbath” was how Jamaica Plain state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez described an estimated $1 billion in budget cuts announced by Gov. Deval Patrick last week.

And in the days following the release of the plan to begin to make up a nearly $1.4 billion mid-year shortfall in the state budget, JP’s large and diverse nonprofit social service sector does appear wounded. Programs for the homeless, youth and the elderly are all feeling the sting.

“Right now organizations need to be strong for the benefit of the community. It’s times like these that test the strength of community organizations,” Sánchez said. “Organizations in our community have previously weathered many storms. Now there is a storm, and we do not know how bad it’s going to get.”

State Rep. Liz Malia, whose district also includes a large chunk of JP, echoed those sentiments. “This is like a snowball coming down hill,” she said. “It’s going to be at least one year of really serious budget problems, maybe two or three.”

Cuts to city and state department budgets are also likely to be felt by residents, though most agencies contacted by the Gazette in the days after Patrick announced the cuts were unable to say exactly how.

Across the country, 22 states are facing mid-year budget shortfalls. Combined with an estimated $1.2 billion shortfall from the beginning of the fiscal year, the additional $1.4 billion puts the state’s shortfall at about 9 percent of the overall state budget, according to the National Center on Policy and Budget Priorities.

Sánchez told the Gazette that he believes prudent fiscal measures taken by state government, including closing corporate tax loopholes and wise investments in growth industries like health care and the life sciences, have blunted the current fiscal trauma.

Nonprofits

That is cold comfort for JP’s nonprofits, though.

“We are on the front lines and often the first effected by the economic problems of the nation,” said Jesús Gerena, director of community development and organizing at the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF).

HSTF runs a host of youth programs with focuses ranging from community organizing to dance. So far, it knows a 10 percent cut in public funding for those programs is coming down the pike. That includes a 50 percent cut to the Latino After School initiative, which funds an after-school program the Task Force runs at the Kennedy elementary school in JP. It is also losing a quarter of the funding it was receiving from the Massachusetts Service Alliance, which it uses to fund an evening tutorial program for high school seniors and a Pathways to College and Careers that matches graduating seniors with mentors.

Lack of clarity about the future was a common refrain among people the Gazette interviewed for this story, and Gerena was no exception. “At the moment we still don’t know what [the economic downturn] means. No one understands what is happening. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be,” he said.

He said HSTF program has been chronically underfunded through good times and bad, and noted there is some irony in social service programs getting cut during hard times. Referring to another local youth group run by Spontaneous Celebrations that did some organizing in the wake of an April killing in Southwest Corridor Park, he said “young people in the Beantown Society last April were drawing a direct correlation between lack of youth job opportunities and violence. I would take it a step further.”

Social tension during hard times and “parents having to work two or three jobs only creates that much more of a need for positive programming for young people,” he said.

By last Friday, Shattuck Shelter in Franklin Park was able to report that it is receiving a 10 percent cut to its operating budget. “We are absorbing it and analyzing it,” said Mary Nee, executive director of hopeFound, the multi-service homeless organization that runs the 120-bed shelter.

HopeFound is contracted by the nearby Lemuel Shattuck Hospital to run the shelter.

Nee said that reducing the number of beds at the shelter is not likely to be an option for cost-cutting, because the space requires a minimum amount of staffing and maintenance, and the shelter is already operating at that level.

“At minimum, we need to provide a safe, clean environment for our guests and employees, and we are looking at what we need to do to fund that,” she said.

More likely, the shelter will cut into specialized support services it provides, she said. Those include drug treatment and employment programs, as well as programs that transition homeless people into permanent housing.

“The cuts are hard because we really feel like we were making real progress,” she said. “We do not want to stop, but these are difficult times in the state’s economy and we are wrestling with that,” she said.

Meanwhile, local elder-care service provider Ethos in a press release announced that statewide, home-care services will receive a $6.768 million cutback. That includes a roughly 7 percent statewide cut to care management for seniors living at home, Ethos Executive Director Dale Mitchell told the Gazette.

Care management is Ethos’s bread and butter, Mitchell said, so the organization is bracing for a hit.

Ethos’s care managers, who identify and coordinate services to help seniors maintain independent living situations, are already operating at maximum capacity, he said.

“Our managers are already carrying caseloads of 105 [clients],” he said. “Layoffs have to be an absolute last resort,” because burdening care mangers with more clients could compromise client safety.

The organization will “probably end up putting [new clients] on a wait list,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell described the cuts as “penny wise and pound foolish,” because if they are wait-listed, many elders eligible for state-subsidized care will have to move into much more expensive nursing homes.

Mitchell expressed his concerns about implementing a wait list by quoting Frank Manning, an elder rights activist from the 1970s. “Putting an elderly person on a wait list for home care is like dialing 911 and getting a busy signal,” he said.

Ethos’s clients are at a point in their life where they are experiencing “a lot of fear about their loss of independence, and their situations are reaching a point where they can no longer be ignored. At that point we are saying to elders and their loved ones ‘sorry we can’t help you,’” Mitchell said.

Another option for cost-cutting might be to increase co-payments for services. But Mitchell said he fears that might place an undue burden on financially strapped seniors in a tough economy.

Public infrastructure

Less clear is how funding cuts will affect city and state agencies public works and services in JP.

Nick Martin, a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office told the Gazette that the city’s Office of Administration and Finance “had already planned for a decline in investment returns.”

The $16 million decline that resulted from the recent stock market meltdown was a little more than the city expected, he said, but “going into it, we knew things would be a little tighter. We are adjusting to handle that.”

Patrick has repeatedly said state local aid cuts to municipalities would be a last resort. Barring cuts in state aid, the city is hoping to maintain a balanced budget by instituting a hiring freeze and reviews of the city’s operating and capital budgets to curb “non-critical costs,” Martin said.

JP projects in the city’s capital plan include renovations to the Jamaica Plain Branch Library and at Jamaica Pond as well as the redesign of Rossmore-Stedman Park and the South Street Mall. Other public infrastructure work going on in JP includes ongoing traffic signal coordination on Washington Street and Hyde Park Avenue in the Forest Hills area.

Mayor Thomas Menino has also ordered the Boston Redevelopment Authority to expedite revenue-generating private development projects.

The Boston Police Department (BPD) is one municipal service that is receiving a hefty state-level cut in the form of $870,000 in state grant funding for community policing. That will not affect the Safe Streets walking beat team in Egleston Square, BPD spokesperson Elaine Driscoll told the Gazette in an e-mail.

Driscoll was unable to say if budget constraints might affect plans to redraw the local E-13 district map to include all of the area around Forest Hills T Station. Announced in August, that plan was tentatively scheduled for implementation in November. At the time, acting E-13 commander Lt. Michael Kern said new recruits from a police academy class would be assigned to E-13 to police the expanded district.

“It is still unclear how the budget cuts will affect individual districts,” Driscoll said in the recent e-mail.

In August, Driscoll told the Gazette public meetings would be held prior to the redistricting, which would push the boundary between the E-13 and E-18 farther north. To the Gazette’s knowledge, those meetings have not been scheduled.

Also unclear is how over $2.4 million in cuts to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) budget will affect JP. The DCR maintains the Arborway and Jamaicaway as well as a portion of Centre Street in JP. It recently completed a community process, in conjunction with the local Arborway Coalition, to redesign a portion of the Arborway between Forest Hills station and the Arnold Arboretum.

“We are still looking at budget numbers,” DCR spokesperson Wendy Fox told the Gazette.

Resident Sarah Freeman told the Gazette that the Arborway Coalition had applied for funding—through a DCR-run matching grant program—to replace a chain link fence on the median strip across from the main entrance to the Arboretum. The coalition expects to hear back about the funding in mid-November, she said.

Fox did have some clarity to offer regarding the Southwest Corridor Park. Despite the elimination of a $225,000 earmark for park maintenance and upkeep, “The Southwest Corridor will stay open and staffed and taken care of,” Fox said. The park runs from Forest Hills to the Back Bay in downtown Boston.

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