RALEIGH — A homeless man and a pint-sized bookworm helped remind Wake County commissioners Monday that proposed budget cuts, if enacted, would negatively impact real people.
Ricky Caldwell, whose sharp navy blue suit belied the fact that he sleeps on the street, recounted how he recently gave up his bed at the South Wilmington Street Center so a disabled veteran on the facility's lengthy waiting list could take his place.
"I am willing to give my bed up for a man in a wheelchair who fought for his country," said Caldwell, who is enrolled in a program to earn his GED. "I'm able-bodied."
Liam Pongracz, 9, told the commissioners that he loves to read and likes to ride his scooter to the nearby Athens Drive Community Library, a branch that is slated for possible closure.
"It only takes five minutes [to get there]," said Pongracz, who was accompanied by his mother and little brother. "If you close the Athens Drive library, I won't have a library close to my house."
Caldwell and Pongracz were among the crowd who took advantage of their allotted three minutes Monday to address members of the elected board about proposed cuts suggested by County Manager David Cooke. Such public hearings are an annual ritual, but this year's budget could make up for decreasing tax revenue by eliminating public services and government jobs.
Several speakers urged the board to raise local property taxes rather than make cuts to libraries, schools and social services. Cooke's proposed 2010 budget would decrease county spending by about $31 million and eliminate 122 full-time county jobs, all but 20 of which are vacant. The county has been in a hiring freeze since the fall.
The county department hardest hit by the job cuts is human services, which will have 65 full-time positions eliminated.
William Stanford, chairman of Wake's Human Services Board, warned commissioners Monday that further cuts proposed at the state level could hobble services to the county's neediest citizens precisely when demand for those services is rising.
"The greatest increases in requests for assistance have involved the most basic human needs: food, shelter and health care," Stanford said.
Michael Watkins, a homeless man who lives at the South Wilmington Street shelter, urged the commissioners to consider the human impact of cuts to social services. The proposed budget would trim 10 percent from the county's support for nonprofit groups that serve the poor, support the arts and meet other community needs.
"I would love to come back and stand before you some day as a success story," Watkins said. "I look forward to that day. I need your help."
Patricia Pilarinos, a member of the progressive advocacy group Wake Up Wake County, questioned why the county was moving forward with an expansion of the Hammond Road Detention Center while slowing down school construction projects. The county's contribution to the budget for county schools would drop about $3 million from what was allocated for 2009.
"It is difficult to imagine inmates sleeping in new accommodations while our children continue to go to school in trailers," she said.
But the biggest group represented among those who spoke Monday opposed the proposed closure of two library branches, Athens Drive and Duraleigh. Cooke's budget also calls for one of the county's two bookmobiles to be decommissioned and a rollback of service hours throughout the library system.
High school student Terri Frasca created a group on Facebook called Save Athens Drive Library. It has more than 500 members. Beyond the books, available at the branch, many use the library's free Internet access to search for jobs and housing, she said. The library also is used by immigrants who take English classes at the school at night.
If the Athens Drive location is closed, patrons will have to travel four miles to the Cameron Village branch, estimated to be a 40-minute trip by city bus.
"Two of my classmates don't speak English, and their families don't have cars," said Joseph Watts, a third-grader wearing a Cub Scout uniform. "Going to Athens Drive is the only chance they have to go to the library."
The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the budget June 15.
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