Cuts Tear at Local Agencies

The cuts in Gov. Tom Corbett's recently passed $27.3 billion state budget were not as steep as initially feared, but many Jewish agencies say the reductions will still hamper their ability to serve vulnerable populations.

"This is the most severe budget we've seen in a long time," said Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of Jewish groups in the state. "There is an expectation and a hope that the economy will improve and we will not be talking about cuts of this magnitude for awhile."

Overall, the Pennsylvania state budget is down 3 percent from last year's $28 billion. Some areas, like higher education, received huge cuts -- about 20 percent or roughly $200 million. Others, like the Department of Public Welfare, which funds medical care for the poor and other social services, were cut by .5 percent, bringing the total allocations in these areas to $10.6 billion.

There's a palpable fear among Jewish groups that next year, agencies like the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Aging might be in line for the level of cuts imposed on education this time around, according to Brian Gralnick, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Social Responsibility.

Gralnick said the governor's sign-off on the budget typically provides agencies with clues --but not necessarily the final answers -- to how their own budgets will be affected.

Such is the case for the Jewish Relief Agency and Federation's Mitzvah Food Project, groups that receive indirect funding from the State Food Purchase Program in order to buy and distribute food to the needy.

After several years of flat funding -- and increased demand due to the recession -- roughly $500,000 was slashed from the State Food Purchase Program's budget, bringing the total allocation to about $17.3 million.

According to Amy Krulik, director of JRA, the agency -- which delivers monthly food packages to just under 3,000 people -- last year received $19,000 a month from the program. Its total monthly food expenses average about $34,000 dollars.

Krulik said she doesn't yet know how much the monthly stipend will decrease because those state dollars are passed through a local non-profit, the SHARE Food Program, which disburses the dollars to Philadelphia-area pantrys.

"The demand for that program has outpaced the ability of the program to cover all of the needs," Krulik said, referring to the state food initiative. "Other safety-net service programs also received the ax. That is only going to put further pressure on people."

For its part, JEVS Human Services, an agency that relies heavily on government funding from all streams, had feared the impact of a proposal to slash $27 million in statewide funding for group homes. JEVS operates 32 group homes throughout the region for adults with intellectual disabilities and chronic mental illness.

"On balance, the cuts were not as bad as we thought they were going to be," Kristin Rantanen, JEVS' vice president for communications and public affairs, said, referring to the $5 million in final cuts for group homes, as well as other programs that will be affected.

At the same time, she said, cuts not directly related to JEVS programming -- such as a $44 million reduction in cash assistance to low-income families -- will affect her group's clients. Through a broad range of programs, the agency, formerly known as the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, works to increase the employability and independence of individuals.

"How much harder is it going to be for our welfare-to-work clients to meet the needs of their own family?" she asked.

At least one program of Jewish concern got a boost in this year's budget. Total funding for the Education Improvement Tax Credit increased from $60 to $75 million -- the level it had been several years ago before the onset of the recession.

Among other provisions, the program allows businesses to receive state tax credits for giving to scholarship funds for private schools, including Jewish day schools.

A provision to raise the total EITC funding to $100 million is contained in a separate school voucher bill, which is still being debated in the state Legislature.

Howie Beigelman, the deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union who helped lobby to increase EITC funding, said he was "thrilled" that the program was actually bolstered by this year's budget.

That's in part because the family income requirement for students to be eligible for scholarships was raised, meaning more families are now eligible.

"Jewish day schools and Jewish families depend on the EITC," he said. "Fully funding it for the first time in years is a testament to Gov. Corbett and the Legislature's commitment to education and to our community." 

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