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Human service needs in the balance

| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 8:55 p.m.

Thanks to some enterprise reporting by the Tribune-Review, Westmoreland County residents learned the result of some number crunching by the county commissioners on this year's budget. There was a nasty surprise: a range of essential human services also were crunched in the process.

Among reductions, nearly $50,000 in support to the Westmoreland County Food Bank, enough to leverage $500,000 in food-purchasing power — cut; $20,000 for a United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania hotline efficiently connecting residents to vital services — gone; $10,000 to Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Laurel Region to enroll 30 children in a popular one-on-one mentoring program — sorry.

Commissioners Chuck Anderson, Gina Cerilli and Ted Kopas gave no warning of the cutbacks. “I was completely blindsided,” Food Bank Executive Director Kris Douglas told the Trib.

In my two years as executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County and a decade before that running a national human services nonprofit, I've had some experience with government-run public budget processes. I'm having a difficult time figuring out where the “public” is in this case.

Good governance calls for a transparent process that involves the general public and human services stakeholders in issues affecting the budget. It is a mystery how the commissioners can justify clawing back $110,000 in vital human services funding from a $311 million budget. We are told that a $7 million deficit has forced this result. But how is it that the most vulnerable are also the most expendable for deficit reduction?

At the Community Foundation, our experience is that the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. Expanding with it is the demand for essential services.

Since the beginning of the year, our Healthy Communities Impact Grants Program has provided $150,000 in funding to nonprofits serving those at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty income threshold ($48,500 for a family of four). In the first 10 weeks of this year, human services funding requests to our foundation totaled $700,000.

On homelessness and housing alone, our county has a shamefully underfunded system — 58 beds in comparison to the 258 average for other counties of similar size.

In the Trib's story, Anderson acknowledged government has a “mission” in budgeting for human services. He also said that mission could be fulfilled with fewer providers.

Frankly, I do not see how fewer providers can serve more people with fewer resources. It doesn't add up. If the expectation is that philanthropy will fill the breach, here's a reality check: All the private funders in the world can't begin to match what government provides.

In essence, all of us share the mission of helping Westmoreland residents achieve the best life prospects possible. To be successful, we must be willing to work together, willing to be open and transparent in our work, and willing to invest for the future.

Kopas has invited affected nonprofit leaders to email him about the degree of harm caused by the cuts. I encourage them to respond and I ask the commissioners to consider what the public stands to gain from restored funding. The county needs a budget that is as morally sound as it is fiscally responsible.

Phil Koch is executive director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County.

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