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Children’s Board budget called ‘dire’

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Many program cuts recommended

By PENNY FLETCHER

TAMPA — The June 23 meeting of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County had a packed house as people from many organizations and neighborhood groups awaited the preliminary report to the board recommending what program providers should not be funded in the future.

A presentation by representatives from a Roundtable group set up about a year ago to study programs serving children and families across the county was given by Luanne Panecek and Amy Petrila, followed by public comment.

Representatives of the Children’s Board listened intently, making notes and commenting in detail as they were told that across the board, recipients (which are service providers) should take an eight percent cut in funding (from the Children’s Board) opposed to last year’s two percent cuts.

The Roundtable representatives also reported that the group cited eight agencies now providing help to area children and families that should be cut from funding all together by Sept. 30; with nine pages of other agencies that it recommended be cut within six months to a year.

Current recipients on the chopping block for Sept. 30 include several that directly affect South County. All but one of those were recommended to be cut because matching funds had dried up or for some other financial reason. They include Reach Up Inc., Closing the Gap in Infant Mortality; Voices for Children of Hillsborough County’s Guardian ad Litem education director; and two subcontractors- Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County; and the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.

Catholic Charities Family Outreach, counseling and support services, which has three South County locations– Apollo Beach, Ruskin and Wimauma – was cited for cuts due to “failure to comply with accounting performance issues.”
A four-page letter was hand-delivered to the Children’s Board from Catholic Charities minutes before the meeting, the contents of which was still not available as of press time.

In a telephone interview Monday, June 27, Catholic Charities President Frank Murphy said he could not comment as no response to the letter had yet been received from any member of the Children’s Board.

However, Murphy told The Observer News, “We know from serving five counties that the services we provide are important to families and we look forward to continuing to serve those in South County and others.”

Bobbi Davis, a member of the Roundtable and presenter of suggested changes at many meetings over the past year all around the county, explained in an interview after the meeting that the Roundtable was formed to study very broad county-wide issues because of budget constraints and had no power to decide what should or should not be cut.

“The Roundtable is made up of heads of about 12 to 14 organizations, including the school district, parks and recreation, the Children’s Board and others that serve children and families,” Davis said. “Everything we recommend will eventually be voted upon. This is a purely preliminary report.”

Still, voices of concern rose from both the crowd and from some Children’s Board members as well.

Many who spoke in opposition to where the cuts were suggested to be made said they would be especially hard on South County where transportation and other issues make access to alternatives impossible.

At the meeting, Davis said the suggested cuts will be necessary because of “the (Children’s) Board’s dire budget situation.” But she also said that a pool of $150,000 had been reserved for three specific purposes, each containing $50,000 but that the money was set up so it could be moved between these three issues: Homeless children; children living with ‘kin’ or they would otherwise be homeless; and for children with “challenging behaviors.”

“We have these three buckets reserved and can move these funds between them if necessary,” Davis said.

Board members Mike Carroll, Valerie Hubbard-Goddard and Robert “Pete” Edwards all cited concerns for the people who would be affected most by the suggested cuts.

One thing that was paramount in discussion was that if the recommendations of the report are followed, many children in after-school programs may not have a place to go.

Shifting of children from some programs they are currently in, including parks and recreation, to the school district’s OST (Out of School Time) program was also a part of the report.
“This makes sense because OST is matched by State funds,” Davis said.

But qualifications for financial aid under OST are different from what is now implemented, and it was pointed out that many families now receiving help in the form of “rate breaks” on sliding scales (such as what families pay to parks and recreation programs) would not qualify under the guidelines provided by the State.

Hubbard-Goddard said that to qualify for early learning vouchers for childcare (under OST) parents had to be working, and many who used these programs now are unemployed and seeking work.
Josie Gracia, a director at South County’s RCMA (Redlands Christian Migrant Association), spoke to this issue directly as well.

RCMA workers are worried about losing the counseling and other services offered at Catholic Charities in Ruskin, Wimauma and Apollo Beach and help with child care.

“Our families (migrants) don’t even arrive in time to apply (under the new suggested guidelines for financial help to attend the childcare and other programs),” Gracia said noting that migrant workers arrive later in the fall than the application deadline.

The emphasis of partnering with the state for ‘early learning dollars’ makes sense financially, but the way it is now, providers (like parks and recreation and RCMA and others) can give parents breaks according to their income, or lack of it. If the new procedures go into effect many who qualify now will not qualify and they could be the ones who need help most, Gracia said.

“We at RCMA want to make sure that the many children we have been serving in South County, thanks to the support of the Children’s Board, do not lose their access to the quality services they need to continue succeeding in school,” Gracia continued.

She and other speakers asked the Children’s Board to be sure and target a fair share of Early Learning funds to the children of South County, and to be sure that families can access the ELC offices to request the services.

“We (RCMA) offer free space in the Ruskin/Wimauma area (in their facilities) for eligibility intake to be utilized,” Gracia said.

That means RCMA will provide desk space locally for families to apply if the plan goes into effect.

Another impassioned plea was given by Suzanne Parker, a program director of the Guardian ad Litem Program that looks after the interests of abused and neglected children who pass through dependency court.
“We are a government entity so we can’t hold fundraisers or solicit donations,” Parker said. “Without a director to train our volunteers, children in the court system will suffer.”

Others who made public comments against the recommended cuts were Tim McHale, who spoke up for Palm River Point, a neighborhood center; Marcia Lewis-Brown, from the Northside Mental Health Center; and Michael Randolph who represented several neighborhood associations and groups in West Tampa.

Davis pointed out that there is still plenty of time for public comment and input as these are only preliminary recommendations.

Workshops will continue around the county during the summer.

Meanwhile, a preliminary budget must go from the Children’s Board to County Commissioners by July 1. Then there will be county budget workshops in August and more chances for public comment. Sometime in September, County Commissioners will take action. Until then, Roundtable presenters pointed out that nothing is set in stone.

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