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Westmoreland

Westmoreland County slashes funding to social service agencies

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

About 7,000 needy families may get less food from the Westmoreland County Food Bank because the county has slashed its funding by $49,000 as part of a cost-cutting move affecting seven social service agencies, totaling close to $110,000.

“This will mean cutting the food box (recipients receive) by three or four items, starting July 1. That's a huge impact. Essentially, we are losing $500,000 in (food) buying power,” said Kris M. Douglas, food bank executive director.

For every dollar the food bank receives, the agency can purchase $10 worth of food, Douglas said.

“I can't understand how they can cut the basic necessity of food. Why is it the people who can least afford it, are the ones who get cut?” Douglas said.

The food bank's funding from the county's general fund was cut. As of July 1, the county also will eliminate Human Service Development Funds to organizations that received allocations for the first six months of the year, including: United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Westmoreland office, $20,000; Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, $14,000; Blackburn Center, Greensburg, $11,000; Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Laurel Region, Greensburg, $10,000; and Union Mission of Latrobe and Connect Inc. of Charleroi, $2,500 each.

The decision was made for fiscal reasons, said Commissioners Charles Anderson and Ted Kopas. Commissioner Gina Cerilli could not be reached for comment.

Kopas said he was hesitant to take money away from front-line social service agencies, but the decision “was part of a very difficult budget negotiation,” he said.

Anderson said he saw the move as an opportunity to save the county more than $100,000.

“We can still accomplish the mission with less providers,” Anderson said.

The commissioners were briefed by county Human Services Director Dirk Matson and his staff and were told that the cuts can be made and those affected would continue to be served, Anderson said.

The county will still provide $99,000 from the Human Service Development Fund to the food bank, Matson said. The county has received about $360,490 in human service funding annually from the state for the past several years and expects to receive a similar amount, although the state's budget has yet to be passed, he added.

The county, which operates on a $310.9 million budget, received about $1.1 million in human service funding a decade ago, Matson said. Three-fourths of the human service funding will go to various county agencies serving people who meet the income guidelines.

“It's a tough budget year. It's just not a good time for budgeting for social services,” Matson said.

Despite the difficult budget decisions, Kopas said he was “open” to making adjustments on the cuts.

“If it is proven it is having a detrimental impact on the vulnerable folks, I am open to adjustments,” Kopas said.

Representatives of the agencies were notified Tuesday night in an email from Matson and were given the opportunity to make an appeal.

“I was completely blindsided,” Douglas said.

Kopas said that, in hindsight, there should have been “more thorough analysis of the true impact that this will have on the people they serve.”

The $20,000 allocation to the United Way went to pay for Westmoreland County's share of a multi-county information and referral call center that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Bobbi Watt Geer, regional vice president of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. About 6,000 county residents used it last year, seeking information on a variety of human services, Geer said. Without the county's allocation, the agency will have to consider making adjustments to the service.

“We don't want to see it harmed,” Geer said.

“I don't know how they made the decision,” said Kelli Belanger, executive director of the Greensburg-based Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

The $10,000 the group receives goes to support the agency's one-on-one mentoring program, Belanger said.

“We were hoping to help 30 children” with the funding, Belanger said.

The Blackburn Center, which operates a shelter for women victimized by domestic abuse, uses its $10,000 allocation to provide education about sexual and dating assault and domestic abuse to about 15,000 students in the county's public and private schools, said Executive Director Ann Emmerling.

Emmerling vowed Wednesday that the center will continue to provide the programming, even if it has to find funding from other sources.

Stephen Christian-Michaels, president of the Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, said it was “disappointing” that the county would cut the $14,000 the agency received for the first half of the year to fund parent support groups, parent training and mother's groups.

“No one likes to pay for prevention. You either pay for it now, or three to five years down the road” when problems arise, Christian-Michaels said.

Neither Union Mission Director Dan Carney nor a spokesperson for Connect Inc., both homeless shelters, could be reached for comment.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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