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Service center hurting with loss of funds
Meals on Wheels, Senior Life Center, parenting education among programs that may see cuts
Teal Rogers puts together a Meals on Wheels pack at the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center. Meals on Wheels is one of the programs at the center that is facing cuts due to a lack of local funds. - photo by Tom Reed

If they haven’t already, local residents may start feeling the effects of the government budget crunch.

The Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, the human service agency funded by Hall County’s two largest local government entities, is cutting needed services to keep the center’s head above water.

Just two weeks ago, the center cut Saturday deliveries to 115 clients in its Meals on Wheels program, and has indefinitely clamped down on the program’s waiting list.

Right now, the waiting list has 59 people on it, but Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Community Service Center, said it could reach 200 to 300 by this time next year.

Other services from the center also are in peril. If grant funding for the center’s parenting education program, which serves families at risk of child neglect or abuse, does not come through, the program could lose two of five counselors, Lewis Moss said.

And next year, if local funding stays at the level it is now, the Senior Life Center could lose one of three full-time staff members and its only part-time staff member, Lewis Moss said.

Such a blow could set the Community Service Center back five to 10 years, Lewis Moss said, and possibly put the Senior Life Center at risk of losing its accreditation.

“We went through a lot of time... and it was a pretty arduous process, and yet, it could be that after all that work and after becoming the only active, accredited senior life center in the entire state of Georgia, that we may lose the very services, the very programs and the very structure that got us that accreditation in the first place,” Lewis Moss said.

And unless sales tax revenues and grant monies rebound, there is no remedy at hand.

In a budget hearing with the Gainesville City Council last week, Lewis Moss made an impassioned plea that the council raise the city’s millage rate to keep the Community Service Center afloat in the next two fiscal years.

But the council hasn’t been amenable to the idea of levying a higher tax rate than has already been proposed. City Manager Kip Padgett said a tax increase specifically targeted for the Community Service Center is not on the table.

He said all city departments are having to make cuts to keep up with lagging revenues — a fact Lewis Moss said she understands and respects.

“It’s putting a strain on everybody, but that’s just the environment we’re in and we’ve got to prioritize our services ... and do the best we can with the revenues we have,” Padgett said.

So far, the city’s plan is to raise the millage rate by 0.26 mills to pay for 18 new firefighters it hired late last year with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We hate to raise taxes at all during hard economic times,” Mayor Ruth Bruner said. “...We don’t really want to go up at all, but this (0.26 mills) is all we feel like we can ask people to do at this point for this year.”

The Community Service Center is funded through a number of different sources.

Locally, Gainesville and Hall County fund the center using a ratio of how many of the center’s clients come from inside versus outside the city limits.

According to the agreement, if Gainesville cuts funding, so will Hall County to keep the center’s funding proportionate, Lewis Moss said.

State and federal dollars that support the program also rise and fall depending on that combined local contribution, she said.

The Community Service Center originally requested $516,000 from the Gainesville government and $744,000 from the county government for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Gainesville’s budget planners settled on a $435,000 contribution, meaning the county contribution must fall proportionately to $628,000.

Lewis Moss suspects that state and federal contributions will also fall because of the reduced local support.

Currently, state and federal dollars make up about 73 percent of the Community Service Center’s budget.

“When I lose local dollars, I lose state and federal dollars,” Lewis Moss said. “And I think sometimes our elected officials forget kind of the unique position that the Community Service Center is in. We use local dollars to leverage state and federal dollars.”

Though city officials have been sympathetic to the Community Service Center’s cause, the mayor said this year, council members’ hands are tied.

“(Lewis Moss has) got a good program and those programs do help less fortunate citizens and we’re real supportive of her program,” Bruner said. “I think she’s doing what she needs to do, which is to try to be an advocate for her staff and her programs.”

Bruner said she hopes that improvements in Community Development Block Grant funds this year may help other nonprofit human service agencies that serve less fortunate residents to help make up for the cuts in the Community Service Center.

But without extra help this year, Lewis Moss said she expects the real impact on the agency’s services will come in fiscal 2012, which begins July 2011, if revenues stay the same as they are today.

That’s when cuts to Senior Life Center staffing will be imminent and the waiting list for the Meals on Wheels program is expected to have grown exponentially.

But Padgett is hopeful that won’t be the case.

“I hope our revenue picture will get better this coming year,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in need.”