Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Butler County forced to slash help for working poor

Ohio's fiscal woes have ripple effect; $1.7M to be cut

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — State funding reductions will force Butler County to cut $1.7 million from social service programs designed to help the working poor and people making the transition from welfare to work.

        “In a world of stable funding, these are not cuts we would want to make,” said Bruce Jewett, director of the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services. “But in a world of diminishing resources, we feel we have no choice but to make them.”

        The planned cutbacks announced Monday come as the county's transit system, used daily by about 1,000 riders, including many working poor people, is seeking funding to stay alive.

        Mr. Jewett told Butler County commissioners Monday that the cuts will erase a $1.7 million anticipated shortfall for the current fiscal year, ending June 30.

        The money-saving changes will be made in the Prevention, Retention and Contingency Program, which helps primarily the working poor who need more money to pay rent or utility bills. Derek Conklin, the county administrator, estimated “several hundred” people would be affected.

        The changes:

        • Lowering the maximum once-a-year payment to a needy family from $1,500 to $750, except for auto repairs.

        • Requiring the heads of households to be employed for at least 30 days before they're eligible for the program.

        These two changes will reduce the county's monthly expenses for this program from $200,000 to $100,000.

        Mr. Jewett said he will be reviewing his departments' contracts with outside agencies that provide support for people going from welfare to work.

        He said he expects to make recommendations to the commissioners on Thursday for cuts in these contracts.

        Commissioner Courtney Combs said it's important for Mr. Jewett's department to make these cutbacks now and not wait until June.

        “It's going to be up to you to balance your budget,” Mr. Combs told Mr. Jewett. “We don't need you to come in here on June 30 saying you need a half a million dollars.”

        “That won't happen,” Mr. Jewett said.

        State lawmakers are meeting in Columbus today to consider more cuts to address Ohio's $1.5 billion deficit.

        Meanwhile, the Butler Regional Transit Authority is trying to avoid a shutdown next year because of losses in state and federal funding. The transit system offers fixed bus routes in Hamilton, Middletown, Fairfield and Oxford and provides park-and-ride sites.

        The Transit Authority has a contract with the county's Department of Job and Family Services to provide transportation to people moving from welfare to work.

        “We're providing transportation for people who have job skills, but who have some barriers to overcome,” said Amy Terango, general manager of the Transit Authority. “A lack of transportation to work or to a child-care center is one of those barriers. We're able to help eliminate those barriers and allow those people to become taxpaying citizens.”

        The Transit Authority was going to decide this week whether to eliminate fixed routes Jan. 1 and to shut down the entire system July 1.

        But Hamilton City Council recently agreed to allocate $85,000 to the Transit Authority. This will give the transit system an extra 1 1/2 months to plan and will allow county officials more time to determine if they can provide long-term funding. Fairfield, Oxford and Middletown are considering giving short-term money to the Transit Authority.

        Ms. Terango said she's concerned that the loss of transportation and cuts in other social services could send a lot of people back to the welfare rolls.

        “Is it better to have people be self-sufficient?” she said. “Or is it better to let them fall back into a system of welfare where they're just taking? It's a question of pay me now or pay me twice later.”


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