Social service leaders concerned over giving amid downturn
By Jaime Levy
The Florida Legislature's as-yet not finalized budget cuts have local social service organizations worrying about whether state cutbacks will exacerbate the effects of Greater Miami's post-Sept. 11 economic downturn.
In October's special session, lawmakers approved a plan to make up for the state's $1.3 billion shortfall - a plan that would significantly reduce the scope of Medicaid and slashed $8.6 million from crime-prevention programs for juveniles.
To continue revising the budget, the legislature will begin a second special session Nov. 27 and organizations that work with the recipients of the targeted services say they are concerned that the second meeting will result in more cuts. Although some are not government agencies, many rely on state funds to augment private donations.
With strong fears about the outcome of the next special session, social services providers say they are working locally to galvanize the community into helping make up for state shortfalls.
"The budget situation is one that is really going to lead to a tremendous erosion of the social services system, and we're really at great risk of undermining what system of care we have in place now," said Daniella Levine, executive director of the Human Services Coalition, an advocacy and policy group. "Obviously, we're a very generous community. A lot of dollars have gone to victims in New York. We hope that generosity will be translated into giving to local charities."
At an emergency meeting of the Alliance for Human Services at 3:30 p.m. Friday, the group's board of directors will try to reallocate dollars to focus on the community's worst needs. At an 8 a.m. Nov. 14 meeting hosted by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's not-for-profit committee, various organizations will discuss how to provide additional or expanded services to help newly unemployed workers and their families, as well as how they can raise public awareness of their own financial shortfalls.
"Many of the core services are going to be defunded or significantly reduced in funding," said Alexandria Douglas, alliance executive director. "It's causing us to really re-evaluate what are the services we'll fund. This is so dire for the community that it's hard to believe all of it will occur."
Services with funds threatened by state cutbacks include pre- and post-natal care through a reduction in the income standard for Medicaid eligibility; the Medically Needy program, which provides prescription drugs, physician services and patient services to eligible adults; the prescription drug assistance program for the elderly; dental, visual and hearing services for more than 90,000 underprivileged adults; substance abuse treatment programs in the prison system, and crime prevention programs for at-risk youths.
Umbrella organizations such as the Alliance for Human Services could try to guide a redirection of private money if state funds fall short, Ms. Douglas said. But this year, local charity leaders say economic demands on residents and competition for donations from relief funds for terrorism victims will leave them with fewer dollars.
"We already have a community in pain due to all the layoffs and how the tourism and related industries are suffering," said United Way spokeswoman Blanca Silva. "Most of the agencies have waiting lists for their services. If they were to face budget cuts, I don't know what the picture would be exactly, but it would be worse than today."
Stephanie Solovei, executive director of Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services - an organization that provides nonresidential crisis intervention services as well as emergency shelter to troubled adolescents - said she expects about 36% of her budget to be sliced by either the state or other revenue-funding shifts. She estimated that about 255 youths and their families will lose the organization's services because of the cutback.
"They will be the next generation of parents and key community leaders, or they could also be the next group of young adult criminals," Ms. Solovei said of the adolescents with whom she works. "The unemployment rate and the level of financial strife will certainly create a great level of emotional stress in families throughout the county. It's a moment when more prevention services are necessary, and it's the very moment the state decides to remove those services."
Miami Bridge is not the only social services provider anticipating significant budget slashes. A survey compiled by the United Way showed at least 13 groups expecting cuts, some of which could be in the millions of dollars.
And although the United Way executives - as well as representatives for several other organizations - said they are hopeful that the business community will come through, they remain skeptical that lost public funds can be recovered.
"This is not the time to provide new tax cuts," said Ms. Levine, citing the controversial intangible tax break that is likely to be deferred in the session. "The people who need dollars are not the people who own GE stock. It's not a sensible strategy to revitalize the economy. No private giving can replace government dollars."