Photograph by Steven Higgs

The Hoosier Hills Food Bank's ability to distribute food to the hungry and food insecure will be negatively impacted by budget cuts approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. The food bank is but one among many local social service organizations that would be financially devastated should the U.S. Senate agree with the House.

Federal funding keeps the Middle Way House (MWH) emergency shelter running. It keeps the heat on, it keeps the water running, and it provides money for a full-time staff.

“It’s absolutely required to have 24-hour-a-day staffing,” said Toby Strout, director of MWH. “We’re not allowed to have volunteers.”

That funding might be cut this year due to the passing of H.R. 1 -- the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011.

“With the cuts, we can’t afford the services that we are required to supply,” Strout said.

H.R. 1 was introduced on Feb. 11, and the social services community in Bloomington has been on edge since its release.

“H.R. 1 is the current year cuts,” said Todd Lare, executive director of South Central Community Action Program, Inc. (SCCAP). “They would take place basically immediately.”

The House of Representatives proposed a Continuing Resolution two weeks ago that cuts current year funding by $56 billion, Lare said at a City Council meeting on Feb. 23. The House also cut Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funding by $305 million -- a 44 percent cut to current year funding.

“This would represent a loss of about $184,000 for SCCAP in 2011, effective March 4,” Lare said at the meeting.
"Initially, the cuts are going to be jobs and programs. But further down the line, it gets more serious." - Toby Strout, Middle Way House
Though the cuts have made it through the House, Lare said the Democrat-controlled Senate does not approve of H.R. 1 and passed a joint resolution that cut only $4 billion out of the social services budget over the next two weeks.

“Now they have till March 18 to come up with an agreement,” Lare said. “If they don’t do something by March 18, then the government would shut down. I think the ideal would be to pass something to get us through Sept. 30.”

But what does H.R. 1 mean for organizations such as Middle Way House, Hoosier Hills Food Bank, Head Start and others?

“Anybody who had big plans that are not already in motion, everything just came to a halt (last) week,” said Dan Combs, Perry Township trustee. “All other agencies, they won’t be thinking about expanding. They’re going to be thinking about how are we going to do what we do.”

At SCCAP, Lare said the proposal for the current year budget would cut 15 percent of the Head Start program, 44 percent of the current year funding for the community CSBG services, one percent of the Section 8 program and about $400 million out of the energy assistance fund.

“I think the $400 million cut to that program is not that limiting because we have funding that will see us through,” he said. “But the other cuts are bad. For fiscal year 2012, Obama proposed in that budget to reduce the energy assistance program by 50 percent next year. Obviously we would have run out if we had that appropriation.”

And if the energy program is cut, Combs said Bloomington residents who rely on the SCCAP’s assistance will turn to the trustees for help with heating bills.

The township trustees office will not face a cut, Combs said, because it is state-funded.

“The board met and we talked about what these cuts mean locally, and we just don’t know,” Combs said. “We know CAP gives away $2 million over a two-county area. We know that we’re the largest population township in those areas. We’re limited in actually the amount of money we can raise.”
"Other agencies, they won’t be thinking about expanding. They’re going to be thinking about how are we going to do what we do." - Dan Combs, Perry Township Trustee
“We’re going to take a huge financial hit because we’re not set up to increase $200,000 a year,” he added. “We’re going to run out much quicker.”

MWH has had declining revenue for the past 10 years, Strout said, and the funding has been in a state of emergency for a while.

“We have a successful program, and that program costs money,” she said. “Initially, the cuts are going to be jobs and programs. But further down the line, it gets more serious.”

Combs predicted that the social service agencies will start to compete for funding a few years down the line if the cuts take place.

“All of them have to compete for United Way money,” he said. “All of them have to compete for federal money. All of them have to compete for county money. When that pie shrinks, you see all of these agencies that provide great services turning on each other.”

The cuts could also cause a domino effect, leading the organizations to merge, Combs added.

“If we’re here, and Mother Hubbard’s is over there, if we merge, all we’re going to save is the light bill,” he said. “And that doesn’t sound like much, until you don’t have money for the light bill. We’re going to start encouraging the agencies that we support to not merge, but maybe partner.”

Combs said it is hard to determine what the social service programs and assistance mean to members of the community.

“There are a lot of intangibles in social service development that you can’t put a price on,” Combs said. “And these cuts are going to go through in one way or another. Even if they just froze them, that’s a slow cut.”

Lare said he hopes that the Senate will not go forward on a series of Continuing Resolutions.

“We want to know what the cuts will be so we can take action,” he said.

Bailey Loosemore can be reached at bloosemo@gmail.com.