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HAC in the News

Social services face 'troubling' cutbacks on Cape

Posted on Wed, Feb 16, 2011

President Barack Obama's proposed budget cuts would put the squeeze on the Cape's neediest, according to leaders of local organizations that help the poor and low-income working families.

They say fuel oil assistance, Head Start, child care vouchers and even assistance with clothing and diapers would be slashed, as well as programs that help homeowners make their houses weather-tight or avoid foreclosure.

Obama's $3.7 trillion budget plan — criticized by Republicans for not cutting deeply enough — "makes it really hard on the most vulnerable people," said Frederic Presbrey, head of the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis.

"People at the top will feel very little pain, and people at the bottom will feel a lot," Presbrey said. "They already are."

The Community Action Committee of the Cape and Islands stands to lose $500,000 out of a budget of $3.3 million under Obama's proposals for the fiscal year 2012, executive director Estelle Fritzinger said.

In addition to providing help with utilities and subsidies for child care, the grants also fund financial literacy classes, provide rental assistance and pay for counselors who sign people up for health insurance, Fritzinger said.

"People rely on these programs so much with the economy the way it is," she said.

Fuel assistance money alone helped about 6,000 families on the Cape and Islands with heating costs last year, according to information provided by Lisa Spencer, energy director at the South Shore Community Action Council, which oversees local fuel assistance programs.

Obama's proposed cuts "would have a devastating impact" on fuel funding and force people to choose between heat and food and medicine, especially as oil prices rise, Spencer said.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Quincy, said in a statement the budget plan "demonstrates the president's commitment to bringing down our deficit," but added the effect of cuts on some should not be lost in "an abstract numbers conversation."

"With a winter like the Northeast is currently experiencing, a 50 percent cut in assistance for home heating oil does not seem like a smart choice," he said.

Head Start, which serves more than 300 children on the Cape and in Wareham, would be cut 14 percent nationwide under Obama's proposed budget, said Mary Pat Messmer, executive director of Cape Cod Child Development.

That could translate into 40 or 50 families whose children don't get served, she said.

"It certainly would reduce access for working families for care," said Messmer, who called the proposed cuts "troubling."

The Housing Assistance Corp. could lose $750,000 that helps pay for home weatherization, foreclosure prevention and housing counseling, Presbrey said.

But Obama also has indicated he wants to increase federal funds to help homeless people by 25 percent, which could mean a different source of funds for HAC, Presbrey said. He said it's too early to tell.

At Cape Cod Community College, officials say proposed cuts to so-called "summer" Pell Grants would affect only about 30 out of 1,500 summer students.

College officials are more worried about a Republican proposal to cut all Pell awards by 15 percent, Cape Cod Community College spokesman Michael Gross. said

"It's very inequitable," he said, adding that it would prolong the length of time community college students, who often are in the workforce and also may have families, take to get their diplomas.

State Rep. Demetrius Atsalis, D-Barnstable, said the budget ultimately adopted by Congress will look different from that proposed by Obama, but it is certain there will be cuts, most likely in social services.

"And it's difficult because you go after those who are most vulnerable through social service programs, housing programs. But we can't be everything to everyone all the time," he said.

State Rep. Cleon Turner, D-Dennis, is concerned about proposed cuts to state aid that would, in turn, affect the amount of aid passed on to towns.

State Sen. Dan Wolf , D-Harwich, said in a statement he hopes Congress will maintain "community job programs like block grants while reducing the deficit in a responsible way."

One bright spot in the presidential budget is a proposed $3.3 million increase in monies the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would get for the Cape Cod Canal, even though nationwide the Corps is slated to be cut by 6 percent.

Obama's budget proposed to spend $17.4 million on the canal in 2012 compared to $14.1 million in 2011, Corps spokesman Tim Dugan said.

The Corps isn't counting the money until the funds are authorized by Congress, but plans are in the works for steel repairs on both the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, Dugan said.

Rep. Timothy Madden, D-Nantucket, said the budget proposal includes a line item for repairs on the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Menemsha, which was destroyed by fire last summer.

Contributing writer Garrett Brnger contributed to this report.