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Social service agencies brace for damage from Pennsylvania budget stalemate

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — For the third time in a dozen years, counties and nonprofit agencies that make up Pennsylvania's social services safety net are girding to pay the price of partisan deadlock in Harrisburg.

They will borrow, burrow into reserves and perhaps even beg private donors for money in an effort to keep their doors open and services available to abused women and children, the disabled, addicts and people too mentally ill to function on their own.

As the governor's office starts to halt reimbursements for July's invoices, hard decisions are beginning to happen: which services must stop or which workers must be laid off. To stave off those decisions into September, lines of credit are being arranged and workers may go unpaid.

"I'm hoping for the best, but planning for the worst," said Gary Krentz, who runs a York-based foster care agency that has 60 to 70 children placed with families at any given time.

Pennsylvania state government is in its fifth week of diminished spending authority amid a budget stalemate between first-term Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature. Wolf wants billions in new revenue to increase spending on education and human services and vetoed a budget passed by Republicans that included no tax increases.

In a 2003 stalemate over education aid, schools kept operating until a December budget agreement. In a 2009 stalemate that lasted into October, social services agencies laid off employees, borrowed money or shut down, and this year the organizations are already feeling the effect.

Under a blend of federal laws, court decisions and constitutional provisions, the Wolf administration continues to pay Medicaid reimbursements, unemployment compensation and debt service, while Pennsylvania State Police remain on patrol and state prisons are operating.

Key pressure points that have inflamed past budget stalemates also have eased.

A 2009 court ruling allows Wolf to keep all state employees paid and on the job. That means driver license centers and state parks remain open and state employees are not marching on the Capitol. Meanwhile, the Wolf administration decided to pay daycare subsidies for the children of low-income working parents who became high-profile victims in the 2009 stalemate.

Many bigger counties — which are conduits for billions of dollars in state government safety-net cash — are working on plans to front the money for a month or two, delaying a lot of pain at least until September. Some smaller counties are telling agency directors that they cannot make the payments.

"What I'm seeing from most of the agencies is that, by October, things will be very dire," said Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which helps coordinate 60 agencies around the state.

Some social-service agency directors see an indignity in their struggle to continue services to the most vulnerable while the state cuts off money in yet another stalemate. It is hitting as they recover from the borrowing cost to survive the 2009 stalemate and state funding cuts of 2012, agency directors said.

Some wonder at what they see as head-scratching decisions by the Wolf administration to pay certain reimbursements, but not others.

"It's mind boggling," said Bernadette Bianchi, the executive director of Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services.

Money to help parents care for a developmentally disabled adult child in their homes is being held up. So is money for battered women's shelters, counseling and legal aid. So is money for county child welfare case workers who check up on troubled families, as well as the homes that take children who are removed. So is money to help the mentally ill and substance abuse addicts who hit rock bottom.

Wolf's plan to deliver more money to human and social services is welcomed by agency directors, and to some extent, they are willing to fight for that funding. They are also worried by what they see as a lack of urgency in high-level negotiations.

"There is a huge amount of frustration," said Maureen Cronin, executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania.

With the stalemate threatening about $7 million of his agency's $29 million budget, Stephen Christian-Michaels, president and CEO of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, bumped up his agency's credit line from $1.8 million to $2.5 million so he can keep staff paid and services available to people who need daily help with mental illness and addiction.

"Whether that will be enough, it remains to be seen," Christian-Michaels said. "It depends on how long they continue to do this."


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.

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