Sequestration cuts having impact on public aid agencies

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 23, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Three weeks after the start of the automatic $85 billion reduction in federal spending known as sequestration, local agencies providing housing, food and support services to the region’s elderly and poor are still waiting to learn how deeply their programs will be impacted and whether their contingency plans will spare the elimination of current service recipients.

Designed to be so painful they will force lawmakers to adopt a plan to reduce the escalating federal deficit, the cut includes an across-the-board 5 percent reduction in funding for domestic programs and a 7.8 percent cut to military spending.

While the continuing federal budget resolution adopted last week has restored funding to a limited number of programs, local programs hit by cuts include Meals on Wheels and other in-home services that allow seniors to delay the costs of nursing home placement, the Head Start preschool program that allows low-income parents to work and attend school, public housing and the regional food bank’s federal food commodities program.

Kathy Whitaker, director of the Area Agency on Aging that administers referrals for the Meals on Wheels and Personal Support Services programs provided by the First Tennessee Human Resource Agency for elderly residents in Northeast Tennessee, said her office has been advised to prepare for a 5 percent to 8 percent cut in funding for fiscal 2013. Through June 30, she said a 5 percent cut will equate to the elimination of 1,892 meals or the equivalent of 25 individual consumers.

To absorb the reduction without ending meals for any current recipients, Whitaker said, “We are not going to replace anyone who leaves as older people go to nursing homes and pass away. That will add to our waiting list. But we are not cutting off anyone that currently receives a meal.”

The Area Agency on Aging has 1,300 people on its waiting list for meals and other in-home services, including homemaking and personal care. Whitaker said, “In homemaking and personal care we estimate 1,406 hours will be eliminated and affect 61 unduplicated consumers. And we’re going to do the same thing, not eliminate anyone receiving care and not replace people who leave.

“This will affect all of our programs. We’re getting some real cuts through the end of June and we’re planning for a major effect. And who knows what next year will be. There will be cuts in 2014, and it could be more next year.”

Addressing the impact, Whitaker said, “We can do so much to keep seniors in their homes but there will be those who have to go to nursing homes because we cannot do that with less money. There’s such a huge amount going and we have more older people.”

Flo Abel, director of the Head Start program administered by the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency, said the anticipated 5 percent cut to the program will reduce funding by just under $400,000 or the equivalent of 53 children. Rather than eliminate any classrooms, child slots or families, Abel said the program will not make up this school year’s snow days, end school a little early this spring and delay the start of classes in the fall.

The shortened school year will come on the heels of the elimination of four Head Start classrooms implemented in the last school year, when Abel said, “We were already as tight as bark on a tree. We had done everything we could to save money and we had hit the wall.”

The good news, Abel said, is “our savings were greater than we anticipated and gave us a little wiggle room. I hated to close five classrooms and have 55 children sit out because their parents can’t afford other day care. You can’t stop health screenings. You can’t stop feeding children. So with these days (eliminated), we think by we can eke by without cutting (more) classrooms, which is hard on our community and our staff.

At Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, Executive Director Rhonda Chafin said while last week’s continuing budget resolution preserved funding for the federal food program for low-income Women, Infants and Children (WIC) originally slated for sequestration, reductions to senior feeding programs and a $2.4 million cut to the Emergency Food Assistance Program that helps food banks nationwide with the administrative costs of the USDA’s food commodity distribution are concerning.

“It will create a burden because these cuts will continue indefinitely,” Chafin said. “We have already seen the amount of (commodity) food we receive decline. Our numbers are higher than they have ever been. We have 39,000 people receiving food (monthly). And when the other programs are cut, particularly the senior nutrition programs, people will have no other place to turn but soup kitchens and pantries.

“It’s really a vicious cycle and in the end it’s going to affect the people who are the most vulnerable. They’re strapping these cuts on the backs of the poor and the elderly. And we are asking people when they talk to their lawmakers and congressmen (to) tell them don’t cut programs that help our most vulnerable population.”

Richard McClain, Johnson City Housing Authority executive director, said HUD funding for both public housing and Section 8 rent vouchers administered by the JCHA were both reduced by 10 percent for March. April’s funding for the authority’s Section 8 vouchers restored that 10 percent cut and April’s funding for public housing has not yet been allocated.

McClain said HUD apparently made the March cuts in anticipation of sequestration and he speculated the federal housing agency “rolled over” unspent funding from its 2012 budget to make up for the March sequestration cut to Section 8.

“We’ll know what our April public housing (allocation) will be probably next week,” he said. “It’s confusing right now but with the 16 percent cut we had last year, we think we’re actually going to end up with more money (than in 2012), and we’ll be all right.”

While McClain expects the sequestration to end when lawmakers come to an agreement on this year’s federal budget, he said the housing authority will stop issuing Section 8 vouchers to new renters and add those applications to its waiting list if the cuts continue for the long term.

For now, he said, “We have a couple of hundred waiting for Section 8.

“Last year we were at 84 percent for public housing and this year we don’t know yet.”

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