Budget debate alarms Ga. social service agencies

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ATLANTA -- Among those nervously watching budget discussions in Washington are Georgia’s social workers.

Thursday, a routine public hearing on the renewal of two of the state’s programs for spending federal grants wound up dealing more with concerns that federal funding cuts will harm the programs. The $87 million Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program pays utility bills for the needy, and the $18 million Community Services Block Grant aims to help the poor improve their finances.

President Barack Obama proposed reduced funding to both, trimming in half what goes to the block grants. And as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives spar with him over deeper budget cuts in exchange for raising the federal debt ceiling, it’s unlikely they’ll preserve current spending either.

“Our client base relies heavily on the services we provide,” said John Robinson, interim director of the Enrichment Services Program Inc. in Columbus. “There will be significant impacts on services to vulnerable populations within our target group. We urge continued funding.”

Thursday’s public hearing in a hot, cramped conference room at the department was meant to be a chance for the public to offer suggestions on how to improve the programs. Typically, few people attend, and the comments are about improving convenience, said Jeff Blanchard, coordinator of the two programs for the Georgia Department of Human Services.

“The dynamic today is fairly interesting,” he said.

The state contracts with non-profit regional agencies like the one Robinson runs to recruit, screen and enroll those getting the services.

Both programs are based on income. For instance, people with incomes lower than 65 percent of Georgia’s median income can qualify for up to $350 per month toward utility bills in the winter.

The state doesn’t put money into the program, although it has in the past and other states do. Some local governments still contribute.

Since it runs out of money just paying heating bills for primarily the elderly among the poor, there’s nothing left when summer rolls around for cooling assistance.

“It would be wonderful if we could do that this year, this week,” Blanchard said.

Wendy Bailey-Hooks, a program administrator with the department, recommended that the leaders of the 19 contractors get the word to lawmakers they or their board members know.

“It is critical that there is advocacy for each of these programs in the legislature,” she said.

“All our programs are on the line,” said Jerome Anderson, executive director of Community Action for Improvement Inc., a contractor that administers the programs in West Georgia cities like Newnan, Carrollton and LaGrange. “This is beyond politics. We aren’t allowed to deal in politics, and we don’t.”

 

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