For the second year in a row, the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center is undergoing some major changes.
Also for a second year, those changes include the cancellation of one of its programs. Still, it’s not all bad news for a department that saw more drastic cuts only a year ago.
The Family Preservation Program, which offers in-home counseling for families at risk of child neglect or abuse, will cease operations on Sept. 30, according to Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton. The families currently in the program will be directed to similar local programs.
The Gainesville-Hall County program has been serving about 40 families and 120 children, said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Community Service Center.
Its dissolution comes as local governments continue to reduce costs.
But with that loss comes changes in other programs, including an expansion of service with Meals on Wheels.
The Community Service Center, jointly operated by Gainesville and Hall County, provides community outreach programs including free income tax preparation, manages the Meals on Wheels program, hosts the Senior Life Center and runs the Hall Area Transit system.
Last summer, the Hall County Board of Commissioners approved a $120,000 cut in center funding, as part of its effort to erase an $11.5 million county budget gap. That move led to the end of the center’s Counseling and Psychotherapy Services and Building Better Babies programs. There was also a reduction in the amount of food delivered through Meals on Wheels.
This year, the city of Gainesville’s proposed budget for the center includes a 1.3 percent cut from $410,377 in fiscal year 2012 to $404,858 next year. The county’s proposed cut is from $503,834 for 2012 to $488,486 next year.
However, beginning this year the Meals on Wheels, which provides food to homebound seniors, will begin restoring some of that service to the popular program.
“We’ll be able to add 29 individuals who are currently on the waiting list,” Knighton said.
Those funds to feed more seniors will come from the funds leftover from the Family Preservation Program, Moss said.
The decision to cut Family Preservation, which was made by city of Gainesville and Hall County officials, was an attempt to reduce costs with a minimal impact on the community, officials say.
“There are other family preservation programs in Northeast Georgia that can provide a similar service to folks who are impacted,” Knighton said.
Community Service Center staff will be working with the state Division of Family and Children Services, the Health Department, schools and the court system to place the affected families in other programs.
“When you look at any budget situation and realize that across the board you have to make some reductions,” Knighton said, “you want to provide the least disruption to the overall services and try to maximize your resources.”
The program cut will also reduce four positions: three full-time employees and one part-time.
There are also a number of changes on the way for the Red Rabbit service.
For starters, fares will be increased. The amount of that increase is pending a study from an outside contractor that is examining the impact of changes, and a public hearing on the proposed increases.
Operational hours for bus service are being reduced from the current 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule to a new one of 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for most routes.
There will also be changes for bus routes.
Officials had originally considered cutting Route 2, which travels from Main Street to Lanier Park to White Sulphur Road, because of low ridership. However, when some riders complained the route was their only way to get to doctor’s appointments that plan was scrapped. Instead, the route will only operate for four hours.
A new route, which will travel to the new Hall County Government Center near the intersection of Browns Bridge and McEver Road, will also be introduced this summer.
Looking at the overall picture to the Community Service Center, Moss said, “I had mixed emotions.”
On the hand, she was happy to see city and county officials renewing a commitment to jointly operate the center, when some had suggested dissolving the consolidated department. She credits Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett and Knighton for their leadership.
“On the other side, I have a sense of immense sadness,” she said.
Even with similar services available to replace Family Preservation, she said the community is losing a program that directly helped families. It was the only program in the region that offered in-home family counseling in both English and Spanish.
“I am disheartened that the weakest and most vulnerable in our population children, won’t be served by our center anymore,” she said.
Gainesville City Council Member Myrtle Figueras has also expressed frustration at the cuts.
If the a budget surplus does arise, Figueras said last week, she’d like to see the funds go to the Community Service Center.