Nonprofits rally to be spared from further state budget cuts

Hundreds of workers, administrators and clients from Connecticut's private, nonprofit social service agencies rallied Wednesday outside the Capitol, urging officials to restore budget cuts and preserve services for poor and disabled residents.

And while Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told the crowd of more than 700 that he would propose using state borrowing to help cover capital costs for agencies, advocates -- while grateful -- were more concerned about regular state funding to operate their programs.

social services rally

Hundreds of social services providers rallied Wednesday against possible state cuts.

The $20 million assistance program Malloy proposed "is the first downpayment," Sheila Amdur, acting executive director of the Connecticut Community Providers Association, told the crowd. "But we have a crumbling human service infrastructure that has only received one-half of 1 percent COLA (cost of living adjustment) in the last five years."

Steady drizzle and chilly conditions didn't keep social service advocates away from the rally, as supporters donned yellow T-shirts that read "protect the safety net," and chanted "SOS, Save our Safety Net."

Connecticut relies on the private sector to provide the bulk of state-sponsored social services. About $1.3 billion, or roughly 6 percent of this year's $20.5 billion state budget, is divided among hundreds of community-based nonprofits that serve abused children, the mentally ill, people with developmental disabilities, those suffering from addiction, prison inmates and others.

According to the state's two largest parent groups for nonprofits, average social worker pay in the private sector is roughly half that of comparable state employees. State payments to nonprofits have fallen well below the rate of inflation over the past two decades, and many community-based agencies struggle with annual turnover rates in excess of 25 percent.

"The state of Connecticut relies on us to provide services, yet they don't pay us enough to cover our costs," Deb Ullman, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Greater Hartford, said. "The state does not pay us enough to pay our employees what they deserve."

"It's essential," Ron Cretaro, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits, said of funding for ongoing operations. "If there's no money, there's no mission."

Nonprofits received their first increase in state funding since 2008 this fiscal year. They got a bump worth 0.5 percent this fiscal year, and 1 percent in the next state budget -- provided it remains untouched.

But some at the rally are leery about the future, given that funding for nonprofits was cut in November by Malloy and in December by the governor and legislature. State officials were working at the time to close a $365 million shortfall in the current budget.

Since then, nonpartisan legislative analysts are forecasting another $139 million in red ink this year and a whopping, $1.2 billion hole -- equal to about 6 percent of general fund operations -- in the next fiscal year, based on current spending trends.

Given recent history, those projections, and Malloy's repeated statements about trying to avoid tax increases, some social service advocates said Wednesday they want to be reassured they aren't still on the chopping block.

"Rethink the cuts," Joseph Duffy, the father of a developmentally disabled son served by a Hartford nonprofit, said in a statement aimed at Malloy. "Don't abandon us, embrace us, ... in the name of all that is good and decent."

Duffy added that unless all recent cuts aimed at services for the developmentally disabled, abused children and the mentally ill are restored, "it will be no less than a moral disgrace."

Malloy, who inherited a budget deficit of historic proportions when he took office in January 2011, spoke earlier at the rally, reminded the crowd of the "terrible mess" he took on, and that while progress has been made, it couldn't be resolved in just two years.

"It doesn't mean there is a secret answer that makes it easy," the governor said. "Because that's not the time we live in."

Malloy, who largely spared social services from cuts last fiscal year, praised private-sector social workers for their efforts, saying Connecticut could not care for the thousands they serve without their assistance.

Though he offered no hints of what his budget plan for the next fiscal year would recommend for operating funds, the governor said he would propose $20 million in new state borrowing for private nonprofits. Malloy's plan will be delivered to the legislature next Wednesday.

The funds would be available to help agencies with capital costs that make them more cost-efficient in the long-run, he said. This could involve purchasing a new furnace to cut monthly energy bills, or consolidating locations to reduce overhead.

"Nonprofit community-based providers are essential partners with the state in providing health and human services," Malloy said.

"They are the safety net, the people who support individuals with disabilities and other significant challenges. Remaining committed to them means we that we remain committed to helping our most vulnerable. By helping these organizations reduce overhead costs, we can help ensure that their funding can go towards assisting those residents who are most in need of their services."

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