Budget crisis, economy begin to squeeze local agencies


HUDSON–Last week Diane Franzman, executive director of The Healthcare Consortium, described a desperate situation that threatened to shut down her organization, a provider of healthcare services to low and middle-income residents of Columbia and Greene counties. The Consortium had run out of money to meet many of its obligations because the state had delayed promised payments.

The same tough times that have hit the Healthcare Consortium and much of the overall economy have also affected other local organizations, especially those that depend of state and local funding.


In a letter to the editor published in last week’s edition of The Columbia Paper. Ms. Franzman reported that the state was more than $184,000 behind in payments to the agency and was late in renewing a contract for a cancer screening and treatment program that officials in Albany had been sitting on since April. The Healthcare Consortium has continued to serve the public only by dipping into its reserve funds, but with those nearly depleted, it faced layoffs and reductions of services. The consortium owed money to service provider partners and vendors and has instituted a moratorium on purchasing.

This week Ms. Franzman had better news to report. The cancer program’s contract has been approved by the state comptroller’s office, which releases $160,000 earmarked for staff salaries, outreach case managers and basic costs of running the program into the pipeline even though the money hasn’t arrived yet. Another $100,000, part of a five-year grant for services associated with the program, is also late.

“The contract is signed and approved, but not paid. If they can’t pay us, then we can’t pay the providers in Greene and Columbia counties. We’ve managed to front some, and some we’ve held back paying. We owe the Columbia Memorial Hospital about $18,000. You make agreements — you want to pay your bills. We still haven’t paid for vouchers for patient services,” she said.

But thanks to a rural health grant from the state for $42,000 that just came through, Ms. Franzman was able to save a couple of jobs.

She is still waiting to hear whether an anti-tobacco use program she administers will be funded. And providing clients with transportation to medical appointments still needs funding. But, said Ms. Franzman, “I’m feeling a little bit relieved. Right now we probably have enough cash on hand to get us through the first week in October.”

In the past, said Ms. Franzman, the state has lagged in providing funding with one program or another. What makes this year different is that “I’ve never had it happen with so many programs affected at once,” she said.

The picture is different for Columbia Opportunities, the community agency that fills in gaps in housing and welfare programs across county not handled by the Columbia County Department of Social Services. Columbia Opportunities’ programs include Head Start, a job training initiative and a winter weatherization program, and Director Tina Sharpe said her agency gets more funding from the federal government in the form of “pass-through” funds, and has not been affected by the state’s financial troubles.

But at the Hudson Youth Department director Trudy Beicht said that summer workforce funding from the state diminished considerably this year. “We were only able to place 30 kids in jobs this year, while we placed 150 last year. It was very sad. I had nowhere to send them. It’s scary I don’t foresee it getting much better. We’re able to operate, but don’t know how it will play out in the future,” she said.

The Hudson City School District, even after cutting close to 50 positions, still had to take out a short-term loan to make ends meet while the state legislature and governor took months beyond the constitutional deadline to agree on a budget.

“The delay in state budget had an impact on the county. There is very little revenue coming in,” said Paul Mossman, the county commissioner of Social Services. “That is not to say we are looking to shut our doors. We can’t. We have mandated programs.”

“Reducing or eliminating services is something we might be looking at for next year. We are in the budget process right now; our budget is the largest in the county,” said Mr. Mossman. He said the county Board of Supervisors is looking for ways to make county government more efficient to “minimize impact on local taxpayers.”

But the task won’t be easy, especially with the social services budget. “Our caseloads are increasing due to the local and national economy. July’s caseloads were up 43 % over last July. Family assistance is up 22 %. Our costs of programs for the homeless have climbed significantly — up 10 to 20 %  —  since last year,” said Commissioner Mossman, adding, “2011 will be a challenge.”

Mr. Mossman said the county has hired a consultant “who specializes in social services” in an effort  to find ways to meet the needs of homeless without housing them in motels, a practice that Mr. Mossman described as “an ongoing problem.”

So far Columbia County has managed to maintain services and positions without taking out any loans, but for next year’s budget, Supervisor Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), now the board’s financial officer and chairman of the county Budget Committee, said, “We have the pencil out, a very sharp one that we’re taking to every budget. We’re asking department heads to either reduce or not increase personnel or contract expenditures, to minimize effects on tax levy next year.”

The county has adopted a hiring freeze and is discouraging overtime, but expenses will rise $1.75 million due to increases in pension and health insurance payments, “which we have no control over,” Mr. Baer said.

“Other counties have reduced services, and we may have to make some choices about them too, other than those required by law,” said Mr. Baer.

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