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Jim Oldham: Coming together to maintain social service funding

“So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”

Anybody who has had a chance to catch the tremendous Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” this week (playing through Sunday at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts) will recognize this line. Like so many of the comic lines in the musical, the beggar’s words reflect a social truth: When times are hard, social safety nets often unravel just when they are needed most.

Our federal government continues to demonstrate this principle, responding to economic challenges with austerity, and “balancing” even small tax increases for those who can afford them with cuts in critical social programs and the support systems that middle- and low-income Americans rely on. I’m cautiously optimistic that the town of Amherst will do better when it comes to maintaining support for nonprofit agencies providing services to residents here.

I wrote in October about the loss of our Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the threat that poses to continued funding of agencies that provide human services in our town.

The release of Town Manager John Musante’s FY14 budget proposal indicates that he aims to maintain the current level of funding for such services in the coming year. This is welcome news, and Musante and the Select Board deserve praise for making this a priority.

The Select Board’s instructions to the town manager last fall provided important impetus, emphasizing “the necessity of addressing the loss of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.”

They went on to say: “It is critical to find a way to continue funding the winter emergency shelter and other human service agency investments, as well as Town staff support for these efforts. This may well be the greatest challenge of the FY14 budget, and we are confident in your ability to find a thoughtful and practical solution.”

The town manager’s response has been to cover all the bases: work to win another year of CDBG funding while providing a backup plan using general funds.

Here’s what he wrote in the discussion of the Conservation and Development budgets, where the CDBG is managed: “The greatest challenge for these departments is to deal with the uncertainty of ongoing CDBG funding and to preserve social service funding. The Town has reapplied for a CDBG grant that could fully cover our administrative, social service, and special capital projects in FY 14… While I have good reason to believe that we will receive at least half the funding we have in past years, and hope to receive full funding, in the event we do not, I am recommending a special article to be considered at Annual Town Meeting for level funding of social services currently funded by CDBG.”

It’s great to see the town’s leaders coming together to ensure that these critical services continue to be funded. Town Meeting members, and residents, need to follow up to make sure that this plan succeeds, by advocating for supporting agencies from the general fund as CDBG funding winds down.

Also, while the town manager has a good plan for FY14, this does not mean that funding for social service agencies is secure.

First, as we often hear in relation to other budget areas, level funding is not equal to level services. Freezing funding for agencies at the FY13 level is a relative cut, since costs rise (which is why the rest of the general fund is rising by an average of 3 percent).

Also, using FY13 as a base year ignores the fact that the current funding is down significantly from several years ago.

Most important, though, is the question of funding beyond FY14.

As a town we need to find a way to continue to contribute to the provision of shelter and food for those who need it, along with the counseling, mentoring and training that can help people build security in their lives.

And we need to commit to this for the difficult years as well as the good ones.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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