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Elimination of fundings will have impact on local anti-poverty agencies

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The administrations of the two anti-poverty agencies serving Hampden County predicted that if federal Community Services Block Grants (CSBG) were eliminated from the budget, the impact would be significant here in western Massachusetts.

President George W. Bush's FY 2007 budget eliminated CSBG, according to a press release from the National Association for State Community Services Programs, and replaced it with an alternative program which the group claimed would add "bureaucratic layers and administrative spending to implement new and untested plans."

The release also quoted Senator Edward Kennedy, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, as saying, "For the second year in a row, the President has zeroed out the CSBG program an essential tool in meeting the unique needs of low-income communities across the country. These programs are especially vital because they help low-income individuals and families become more self-sufficient. It is imperative that full funding be restored to this critical and successful anti-poverty program. Congress fought back last year and said this was a bad idea. Yet again, President Bush gives us a budget that shortchanges our opportunity and shortchanges our future."

Across the nation 1,100 anti-poverty community action agencies use the CSBG funding to provide services for the poor and near poor. According to the National Association for State Community Services Programs, in FY 2004, $594 million in CSBG funds were leveraged to create $9.7 billion in funding. With that funding, community action agencies helped over 15 million individuals, including six million low-income families and 3.7 million children with housing, nutritional, educational and employment needs.

"The need for Community Action resources has never been greater, and it is growing," The National Community Action Foundation Executive Director David Bradley said, "The population eligible for CSBG services those with incomes at or below 125 percent of poverty has increased by more than 1.6 million people in just two years. Most of the newly poor are workers with low-wage jobs and their children."

In Hampden County, two organizations would be affected by the loss of funds if Congress approves the cut Springfield Partners for Community Action and the Valley Opportunity Council.

Paul Bailey, executive director for Springfield Partners, said the agency receives nearly $500,000 of its almost $3 million budget from CSBG funds. If that funding disappeared, Bailey said, "We wouldn't be able to do a lot of the programs that we do."

Springfield Partners operates a daycare center, is a site for the SERVE New England food program, offers free tax preparation assistance, provides home weatherization and has an elder telephone reassurance program, among its services. Its service area is the city of Springfield.

Bailey said the CSBG funding is used for programs as the tax preparation and for underwriting some salaries.

Losing the funding would be "very devastating," he added. "We would have to look for alternatives."

The Valley Opportunity Council based in Holyoke is the other local agency that would be affected. Stephen Huntley, the interim co-executive director said the agency receives $324,000 of CSBG funding. Because the overall operating budget for the agency is $21 million, Huntley said the loss would not have a great affect on existing programs, but smaller targeted programs and, more importantly, on future ones.

Huntley said the agency uses the funding for new programs, such as its tax preparation assistance program.

If [a program is] successful, then we look for other sources to fund it," he said.

He noted that the tax preparation assistance program makes a real economic contribution to the area. Those people who qualify for help not only save the $300 to $400 commercial tax preparers charge, but then they receive a complete refund that is spent locally.

Huntley estimated that over $1 million went back into the area's economy because of this program.

The Valley Opportunity Council serves Chicopee, Holyoke as well as Agawam, Blandford, Brimfield, Chester, East Longmeadow, Granville, Hampden, Holland, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Monson, Montgomery, Palmer, Russell, Southwick, Tolland, Wales, West Springfield, Westfield, and Wilbraham. Among its programs are affordable housing development, food stamp distribution, summer feeding program, emergency food and fuel coalition, and adult literacy, among others.

Bailey said that he and other community action agency directors would be participating in a lobbying effort next month in Washington D.C. to convince members of Congress to keep the funding in place.