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Jittery, uncertain, making do: Elkhart County agencies adjust to sequestration

Federal budget cuts due to sequestration are taking a toll on some agencies and entities in Elkhart County.


Posted on June 16, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Go here for more details on how sequestration is impacting Elkhart County entities

ELKHART — Francis Leininger — supported by a walker, headed into a dialysis session — won't go down without a fight.

The Wakarusa man has been writing letters to local, county and national elected leaders serving Elkhart County with one message: Don't stop the funds trickling into the Council on Aging here. He relies on the agency's transportation program to get to his three weekly dialysis sessions at an Elkhart clinic, but because of sequestration budget cuts, the offering — and many others — will experience a big funding dip. Leininger worries he may lose his ride.

“They can't cut the money. We need it,” he said, outside the Council on Aging van and preparing to go into the clinic for his medical appointment. “They don't realize that's the means of transportation. We need them.”

MAKING DO WITH LESS

The threat of sequestration was supposed to have forced U.S. lawmakers to reach some sort of compromise plan aimed at reining in U.S. government spending. That didn't happen, and the mandatory, across-the-board federal budget cuts went into effect March 1.

They've arguably had the desired effect, helping rein in the ballooning federal deficit. And as described by officials from some of the agencies here that rely on funds to be cut, sequestration reductions have forced them to re-prioritize spending, make do with less, look elsewhere for money. Those aren't necessarily bad things.

More ominously, though, it's got some people jittery, worried about the future of the services they provide — rides for seniors like Leininger, educational programs for low-income pre-schoolers, subsidized housing for the needy. You just can't keep cutting and cutting forever, and no one knows for sure what the long-term impact of sequestration will be, left as is.

“If we don't take them, how are they going to get there?” said Tammy Friesen, executive director of the Council on Aging here, mulling the prospect of reduced funds to give people like Leininger rides.

Kathy Guajardo, executive director of the Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties Head Start Consortium, said the Head Start programs in Elkhart County's public schools are safe, for now. Head Start is geared to low-income children, providing pre-school instruction to prepare them for kindergarten.

There won't be any immediate cut in services, thanks to spending reductions elsewhere that will offset lost federal funding, she said. Beyond that, though, things get more cloudy.

“We made it this year, but what are we going to do next year?” Guajardo said. Some of the experts she consults tell Guajardo to be prepared for additional funding cuts in years to come, presuming sequestration remains in effect as is.

Others here reliant at least in part on federal funds and impacted by sequestration include the Elkhart Housing Authority and the Elkhart County Health Department, which manages the Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC. Special education programs in Elkhart County's public schools, too, are feeling the pinch.

GUARDED OUTLOOK

There's no question that Friesen at the Council on Aging is worried.

Seniors rely on the agency's transportation service to get to doctor's appointments and grocery stores, and it's facing a funding dip in the fiscal year starting July 1, from $94,000 to $73,000, largely due to sequestration. Friesen already turns down 100 to 200 ride requests per month and the looming cut would potentially force her to reduce the annual number of rides provided from 14,000 to around 12,000.

Elsewhere, they're not panicking and no one's reporting any imminent reduction in services. Over the long haul, though, their outlook is guarded.

Kim Sindle, executive director of the Elkhart Housing Authority, said the agency really started tightening its belt in 2008, when the U.S. economic recession started taking hold. That's helping the agency weather sequestration funding cuts of up to 31 percent, without reducing assistance to those who rely on its offerings.

“As far as Elkhart goes, we're in a very good position,” Sindle said. The authority is also dipping into reserves, though, a practice that can't continue indefinitely, he acknowledges.

“Only time will tell what it means for housing authorities,” he said.

The Elkhart Housing Authority runs the Waterfall and Riverside high rises and other low-income housing units. It also provides housing vouchers to help low-income residents pay their rent.

Head Start programs elsewhere in the country have faced tough decisions, scaling back services or busing to deal with sequestration cuts. But Guajardo said a dip in Head Start employee health costs here after changing health plans is helping offset sequestration losses, preventing a reduction in services, at least for now.

Her office oversees Head Start programs in the Elkhart, Goshen, Concord, Wa-Nee, Middlebury and Baugo school districts.

She's been in the business long enough to be accustomed to funding jolts and surprises and keeps an even keel. “I'm used to the waxing and waning,” she said.

HOPING FOR NO MORE CUTS

Jenny Schrock, who oversees the Elkhart County Health Department division that manages the WIC program here, said a natural reduction in WIC clients brought on by the improving economy is helping it deal with sequestration cuts, about 5.1 percent nationwide. WIC provides health and nutritional assistance to low-income children and pregnant women.

Thus, no WIC clients will be denied services.

Still, Schrock's division isn't left unscathed. Staff had to be scaled back to deal with lost funding — a vacant part-time post won't be filled and two full-time workers were reduced to part-time status, among other things.

More budget cuts could be in the offing, but Schrock is hopeful the WIC budget, in the near term, will stay where it is.

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.



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