Carbon agencies feel budget pinch
Rachel Smith goes through the routine of preparing her classroom for students, even though they will be arriving a couple weeks later this year, thanks to the state budget impasse.
The Head Start teacher, based in Lehighton, came in on what was supposed to have been her first day of work to prepare her room and clean a fish tank.But with the organization's funding held up until a budget is passed, the nonprofit that runs the program has decided to push back the first day of school by two weeks from Aug. 31 to Sept. 14."Regardless of whether or not we're starting, I'm here," she said.Head Start relies on state grants to fund its teaching positions.Without a budget deal, no money has come out of Harrisburg since late June."I just want to get these kids back in here," said Beth Ann Sheckler, who directs the Lehighton program. "At least when they were here, we knew they were happy, safe and full."Pathstone Carbon County Head Start is just one of several local agencies who are having to do without state funding while Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led Legislature go back and forth on a 2015-16 budget.Some of those providers shared their stories at a meeting Monday hosted by state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon.Vulnerable peopleMany nonprofits have been forced to delay or modify programs. The organizations that are affected, in many cases, are the ones that help protect some of the state's most vulnerable residents. While many residents feel no effect from the budget impasse, families with children enrolled in Head Start, the elderly, and those seeking treatment for addiction have noticed.The United Way surveyed 312 organizations statewide and found that a quarter of them expect to curtail some of their services in August.Instead of cutting or delaying their programs, some organizations, like the Carbon-Monroe-Pike Drug & Alcohol Commission, are relying on credit.Executive director Rick Mroczka said with the agency's current line of credit, the program in Lehighton can continue to operate through October.In the other two counties the agency serves, it is unable to pay care providers until the budget is passed.The agency was also hoping to take advantage of new funding for new drug treatment programs with the 2015-16 budget, but now those programs are in limbo."There is a whole realm of effect that this budget is having on us," Mroczka said.A critical timeThe gap in funding for drug treatment comes at a critical time, according to the commission's treatment program manager Jamie Drake."With the immense heroin problem in the three-county area, we are getting bombarded. Our facility is at capacity," she said.Providers are worried without these programs in place, an unintended consequence could be social issues that the government will eventually have to pay for.Sallianne Schatz, of Carbon County Children and Youth, said her department has not felt any funding crunch yet. But after hearing from the other providers, she was concerned about the direct effect it could have on the cases she sees."If drug and alcohol treatment get pushed back, if there are no services for adults, we could have more children in placement."Heffley sympathized with the groups, and expressed frustration with Wolf's approach to the budget at Monday's meeting. The budget stalemate has to do primarily with funding for publiceducation, not the programs whose stakeholders attended the meeting, Heffley said.One temporary solution that has him interested is approving the line items that both the Legislature and governor agree on, and continuing debate on the other, more controversial ones.He warned those in attendance that a solution could take additional weeks to reach, with Republicans holding a majority in both houses, but not enough to overcome the governor's veto."We should be focused on next year right now, not looking back at June," he said. "There is important work to be done."In some ways, his office is in the same boat as the local non-profits relying on credit. The district office's expenses, and Heffley's salary, are currently being paid out of reserves maintained by the legislature's Republican caucus.But Heffley said that he does not support the governor's budget because it would result in increased taxes, particularly on local banks. He also believes that the proposed natural gas severance tax will result in increased costs for consumers."There are two philosophies. The governor's philosophy is that we have a revenue problem we need new taxes," he said. "Ours is, spend what we have."