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Service agency advocates rally in Greensburg for on-time passage of state budget

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
The Rev. Gabor Nitsch, director of Pastoral Care at Bethlen Communities in Ligonier, shows a sign of support as Westmoreland County officials, school reps, human service providers and regular people hold a rally Wednesday,  June 22, 2016, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse Square in support of an on-time state budget this year. The rally hopes to bring attention to the problem will stop last year’s 267-day budget impasse from happening again.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Gabor Nitsch, director of Pastoral Care at Bethlen Communities in Ligonier, shows a sign of support as Westmoreland County officials, school reps, human service providers and regular people hold a rally Wednesday, June 22, 2016, at the Westmoreland County Courthouse Square in support of an on-time state budget this year. The rally hopes to bring attention to the problem will stop last year’s 267-day budget impasse from happening again.
David George (center), vice president of the consumer advisory committee, joins friends and support professionals from the Adult Training Facility Day Program at NHS Human Services of Greensburg, to show their support during a rally at the Westmoreland County Courthouse Square in support of an on-time state budget this year. The rally hopes to bring attention to the problem will stop last year’s 267-day budget impasse from happening again.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
David George (center), vice president of the consumer advisory committee, joins friends and support professionals from the Adult Training Facility Day Program at NHS Human Services of Greensburg, to show their support during a rally at the Westmoreland County Courthouse Square in support of an on-time state budget this year. The rally hopes to bring attention to the problem will stop last year’s 267-day budget impasse from happening again.

Linda Parker has been a user of social service programs for nearly two decades and is worried she will be left on her own without the timely passage of a state budget.

Parker of Latrobe was one of more than a dozen people who spoke Wednesday at a noon rally in the courtyard in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse to lobby state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf to pass a state spending plan on time this year.

As signs throughout the crowd of about 200 pointed out, passage of last year's state budget was delayed by 267 days, causing funding problems for municipalities, schools and social service programs.

Parker told the crowd that county-based agencies that rely on state funding to pay for mental health, training, vocational programs and other services would greatly suffer should there be a repeat of last year's budget impasse.

“Without the budget passing, these services are at risk, and that puts me at risk. Those services have been important to me to keep me well,” Parker said.

The rally was designed to put pressure on lawmakers to finalize a state budget by the end of this month to avoid problems that resulted from the impasse in 2015.

Tay Waltenbaugh, chief operating officer of Westmoreland Community Action, which operates 26 programs that serve more than 8,000 residents, said his agency borrowed more than $1 million and needed a local foundation to donate cash to pay interest on the loan because of the delayed budget.

“That was money that could have been used to pay for services,” Waltenbaugh said.

Dirk Matson, director of the county human services department, said as many as 90,000 Westmoreland residents rely on social services agencies for assistance. He noted that the late budget resulted in the county having to temporarily close several of its senior citizen centers because of a lack of funding.

“It is not acceptable and can't be repeated this year,” Matson told the crowd.

Laurie Bennett Levine, executive director for Mental Health America of Westmoreland County, said that without state funds, her organization will be forced to get a loan to continue operating.

“Dozens of human service organizations will have to borrow money to stay open. Staying open is what we do,” Levine said.

Just how much impact Wednesday's rally will have is an open question. Speakers asked service users, employees and residents to contact state officials and demand that a budget is passed to meet the June 30 deadline.

Victoria Winton, an adult trainer for NHS Human Services in Greensburg, attended the rally with several of her clients and coworkers. She said she's hopeful state officials will listen and finalize a budget that includes appropriate funding levels for human services on time.

“We need to get the word out. People need to hear we're showing Harrisburg we have support for social services,” Winton said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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