Shutdown strained services

pseligson@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2013 

At the senior center in Smithfield, longtime friends meet each day for lunch, with easy laughter heard between bites of food.

Like its counterparts in other Johnston communities, the Smithfield Senior Center provides free lunch, games and exercise to older adults in the area.

“It extends our life being here,” said Linda Cobb, 68, of Four Oaks. “Some people need a reason to get out of their house.”

Cobb is one of about 15 regulars at the Smithfield center, operated by Johnston County Community & Senior Services. But the center here and those elsewhere in Johnston could have been forced to close their doors if the federal government shutdown had continued.

“If they cut this out, what are we supposed to do?” said Rosa Shepherd, 73, of Smithfield. “Guess we can sit there and rot, huh? I don’t plan to rot.”

During the shutdown, federally supported programs in Johnston County faced tough decisions as money stopped flowing. Though the shutdown is over, the agreement reached in Congress extends federal spending at current levels only through mid-January. Because of that, local agencies and nonprofits are uncertain how to handle their finances going forward, and they don’t know when they will get their promised money, which faces a lag time as backed-up government agencies return to work.

The Johnston County Area Transit System, for example, is waiting for access to $600,000, or 25 percent of its budget. The money was supposed to be available July 1. But first, state lawmakers had to pass a budget, and then JCATS, which shuttles seniors and the poor to doctor appointments, had to wait for outside companies to sign contracts. By the time that happened, the federal employees who release the money had been furloughed, said Neal Davis, executive director of Community & Senior Services.

The frozen funding caused the waiting list for medical rides to grow to 28. And even with funding restored, it’s too late for those people, Davis said. “The lost services can’t be gotten back,” he said. “They didn’t get the help they needed when they needed it.”

JCATS also canceled some rides and found money elsewhere to provide transportation for five dialysis patients. Davis said clients didn’t know it, but many of their rides were on thin ice.

Community & Senior Services saw waiting lists grow in other programs too. For the in-home aide program, the waiting list reached 92 people last week, and the wait for home-delivered meals climbed to 69. If the shutdown hadn’t ended, those services could have been cut, Davis said.

Mary Mitchener, 93, of Smithfield said she would have to rely on food stamps only if home-delivered meals stopped coming to her door. But grocery shopping is hard, she said, because she has arthritis and can’t stand for long periods. “I’d have had to trust the Lord, like I’ve been doing,” she said. “That’s a God-sent program.”

For Harbor Inc., which provides aid to victims of rape and domestic violence, the freeze on federal funds could have closed the agency’s shelter, said Keri Christensen, executive director.

But even with the shutdown over, the money still has to trickle through bureaucratic red tape. “We’re not going to get our money tomorrow,” Christensen said. “It’s still going to be a few weeks.”

Harbor’s budget is about $600,000 a year, and about $120,000 of that comes from the federal government, including the Victims of Crime Act. The shelter runs entirely on federal funding and has operated near its capacity of 14 people for months. Reserve money would have lasted only through early November, Christensen said.

She said the shutdown had a snowball effect, as people found themselves unable to keep up with their bills. That taxed social programs, which were also hit by the shutdown.

“I hear people say, ‘Oh, the shutdown isn’t affecting anybody really; it’s shut down the panda cam.’ But it is affecting real people in our communities greatly,” Christensen said.

A wake-up call

Nonprofits often don’t have savings to make up for a lapse in federal funds, said Sherry Harris, president of Reach Out Johnston County, which helps the county’s nonprofit community.

“In the nonprofit world, when I think about a reserve, I don’t think about a huge savings account over here in a bank,” Harris said. “You’re just a little bit over in your checking account that might could help you for a few days.”

Marie Watson is executive director of Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, which runs the county’s Head Start program. The shutdown held up roughly $60,000 in reimbursements for food, meaning the agency had to use reserve money.

Watson said nonprofits like hers can’t save money to prepare for funding freezes like the shutdown. “A lot of times, our grantors want to see us spend everything,” she said. “If you’ve got any money left over, they want it back.”

Taking out a line of credit isn’t possible, Watson said. Though the lender would eventually get its money back from the federal government, Community Action wouldn’t be able to pay the interest, Watson said.

Davis said the shutdown has been a wake-up call for nonprofits to manage their money even more carefully. “By virtue of what we do, the spirit of the way our revenues come in, it is intended to be put to work,” he said. “And yet as an organization we have the responsibility to the entity to keep it running, so you have to find a way to carve out sufficient reserves to get through the issues that we’re facing right now.”

Davis said the shutdown was a double-whammy after sequestration also cut programs.

“It’s a wake-up call for board of directors and executive directors to sit down and come to terms with what have we got to do to maintain sustainability of the agency, even if it means holding back money that you would otherwise like to make available in terms of programs and services,” Davis said. “Because at the end of the day, nobody is looking out for us but ourselves.”

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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