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WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2007
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United Way agencies face painful cuts

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

The painful scenario that creates hardships for those who seek to comfort their discouraged and downtrodden neighbors may be back on Morgan County's horizon.

The annual United Way campaign, which normally would have concluded in January, is nearly $500,000 below its $2 million goal. Pledges continue to come in, but projections show the final amount will be between $1.75 million and $1.8 million, 5 to 7 percent below the $1,927,000 raised last year.

That spells budget cuts again for the 32 agencies that receive United Way funds to provide community assistance, ranging from medicine for the poor to helping youths avoid drugs and bad choices. Since 2000, these agencies have had to endure 7-percent cuts or level funding every year but 2004.

Another cutback is unacceptable to United Way's board of directors, which will continue the campaign through February to try to reach its goal.

The United Way sent letters to the community today, appealing for donations from lawyers, doctors and other professional services, church groups and wealthy retirees.

"And we still hope some companies that have never held an employee campaign will come forward and let us help them set up payroll deductions with their employees," said George Pollitt, director of the United Way of Morgan County.

If the projections hold true, Pollitt said the cutbacks will have most adverse affect on the Volunteer Center of Morgan County, American Red Cross, Mental Health Association in Morgan County, Salvation Army and Crisis Services.

"If we have to go lower, it means a person will probably have to go," said Sue Brantley, MHA director. There is no fat in our budget."

If a staff member goes, then so will some programs, she said, and it would be up to MHA's board to determine if it would eliminate established services that help people with depression, for example, or perhaps the annual Red Ribbon March that encourages children to avoid drugs.

The MHA has struggled the past two years to keep some youth programs afloat after being denied a Drug Free Community Support Program grant. Some programs would still have grant money to operate, but those grants don't allow funds to go toward overhead costs.

Brantley said that one of the key benefits of United Way funding is that it allows MHA to pay for rent, utilities, equipment, office supplies and staff salaries.

Mary K. Braddock, director of the Volunteer Center, said her agency already is $18,000 short in anticipated revenue for this year.

That could mean the elimination or drastic reduction of youth programs that teach students to value of community service or even air conditioning and heat relief programs that often save the lives of low-income elderly people and people with respiratory illness. It also could affect the wheelchair ramp program that last year provided safer home access for six low-income residents, down from 15 the year before because of reduced funding, Braddock said.

"Our programs are so broad, and we have so many volunteers, but you have to have staff to manage the volunteers," she said. "So, there could be staff cuts as well."

Valerie Coan, director of homeless services for the Salvation Army, which assists some 5,500 people annually, ranging from homeless shelters to providing Christmas toys and food for low-income families, said her agency tries to avoid cutting any programs and usually looks to decrease the number of people served.

That's going to be hard considering some of those services already are down to minimum assistance, she said. The utility assistance is only enough to help four or five households per month, and prescription assistance is down to six per month.

"If that gets cut, we're going to be down to nil," she said. "The free clinic is an option if they don't have medical insurance, but it can takes weeks to get an appointment, and the immediate need is not going to be met for blood pressure or diabetes patients."

Despite the bleak outlook, Coan hopes local citizens will help United Way reach its goal.

"The community has always rallied so well," she said. "We live in a great community that has a large heart and they've always reached out and helped in times of need."

Anyone interested in assisting with or contributing to United Way can call 353-6643.

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