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State-aided agencies stretch purse strings to the limit

| Saturday, June 28, 2003

Local agencies that get state funds have predicted dark and dire straits -- layoffs, cutbacks and general chaos -- if the Legislature failed to restore cuts in the commonwealth's budget by the July 1 deadline.

As the deadline draws nigh with no more money in sight, most state-financed organizations now are finding ways to ride out the turbulence.

State money is critical to many local institutions, including the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and many social-service agencies.

While agencies await the outcome of maneuvering in Harrisburg, some are making cuts; others are turning to reserves to pay for essential services.

On Friday, Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey dipped into the county's $27 million surplus fund to avoid cutting after-school programs, adult education, help for the homeless, home nurses for the disabled and counseling for victims of violent crime. The $300,000 cash infusion will extend services for a month to about 10,000 poor residents in the county.

"We're taking money out of our reserve fund to fund one month of the program in anticipation that the state will renew a substantial amount of the money and we'll be reimbursed, so we won't have to interrupt services," Roddey said.

The money will extend contracts with 38 nonprofit service providers through July 31. The county relies on state money to pay for the services. If the county can't afford to pay, the programs probably would be eliminated, Roddey said.

Lawmakers passed a budget in the spring that cut money for such programs by $4.7 million -- leaving just $98,000 and effectively gutting county-provided human services.

For the most part, service providers are holding their collective breath.

Bea Caruso, health program director with Community Human Services Corp., said she has advised her staff to start making career plans. All employees would be let go if the county would end the agency's $286,500 contract -- which makes up 95 percent of the budget for the homemaker program. More than 100 disabled county residents rely on the service.

"We're just doing what we can to preserve, to continue," Caruso said. "We don't want to destroy the infrastructure in case we get funding."

The county's Human Services Development Fund supports an array of programs, from parenting and life-skills training to residential services. During the last budget year, it served an estimated 18,000 people through 38 service providers.

Cuts to other Department of Human Services programs -- employment and training, homeless assistance, drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health services -- are not as deep. But some providers said they have little hope of having all the cut money restored as they tread into the new fiscal year July 1.

The Port Authority has decided to delay passing its budget until it sees how much it will get from the state. Its current operating budget will be extended through July.

The authority's decision puts off proposed fare increases and service cuts -- buying another month's worth of weekend and nighttime bus service. But it also will eat into the $14 million that the authority needs to balance its budget, according to Executive Director Paul Skoutelas.

"If this final action we're waiting for drags on for any reason, that makes it that much more difficult to achieve the targeted savings," he said.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which would receive $2.4 million less this year under the state budget, announced yesterday that it must make cuts now -- and talk about restoring services later.

As of Tuesday, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will close the main library in Oakland and the Squirrel Hill library on Sundays; cut spending on new materials, such as books and videos by 10 percent; charge fees for many computer classes; and suspend programs at schools, day-care centers and senior citizen centers.

For now, cutting services is "the only financially responsible course of action," said Director Herb Elish.

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