Government shutdown strained Johnston County services

pseligson@newsobserver.comOctober 20, 2013 

— At the senior center in Smithfield, longtime friends meet each day for lunch, with easy laughter arriving between bites of food.

Like its counterparts in other Triangle area communities, the Smithfield Senior Center provides free lunch, games and exercise to older adults in the area.

“It extends our life being here,” said Linda Cobb, 68, of Four Oaks. “Some people need a reason to get out of their house.”

Cobb is one of about 15 regulars at the Smithfield center, operated by Johnston County Community and Senior Services. But centers such as this one can get funding from several sources — federal, state, county and private — and the supplies are not always permanent, as seen during the recent federal shutdown. That’s as true for programs that offer some home repair and rides to medical appointments as it is of this haven for Johnston County residents.

“If they cut this out, what are we supposed to do?” said Rosa Shepherd, 73, of Smithfield said of the program. “Guess we can sit there and rot, huh? I don’t plan to rot.”

During the shutdown, federally supported programs in the state faced tough decisions as money stopped flowing. Though the shutdown is over for now, the agreement reached in Congress extends federal spending at current levels only through mid-January.

Because of that, local agencies and nonprofits are uncertain how to handle their finances in months to come, and they don’t know when they will get their promised money, which faces a lag time as backed-up government agencies return to work.

The Johnston County Area Transit System, for example, is waiting for access to $600,000, or 25 percent of its budget. The money was supposed to be available July 1. But first, state lawmakers had to pass a budget, and then JCATS, which shuttles seniors and low-income people to medical appointments, had to wait for outside companies to sign contracts. By the time that happened, the federal employees who release the money had been furloughed, said Neal Davis, executive director of Community & Senior Services.

The frozen funding caused the waiting list for medical rides to grow to 28. And even with funding restored, it’s too late for those people, Davis said. “The lost services can’t be gotten back,” he said. “They didn’t get the help they needed when they needed it.”

The organization’s counterpart in Wake County, Resources for Seniors, has more diverse funding sources, which lessened the impact, said president David Cottengim. But if the shutdown had continued, the group would been forced to turn away 18 people from adult day care last Friday, he said.

“We were very fortunate,” Cottengim said. “We have lots of grants and lots of block grants, but the only one that was in play, at least at that point, was in social services.” If the shutdown had continued, many more programs would have been affected, including senior centers, transportation and home aids, he said.

The nonprofit’s reserves come mostly from private donations, Cottengim said, but those take years to build up.

The Interfaith Food Shuttle in Raleigh uses a federal grant for programs that teach people about nutrition and growing their own food. That money was frozen, and the group is still waiting for $50,000 in reimbursements and using reserves in the meantime.

“We don’t know how quickly we will get reimbursed,” she said. “We’re crossing our fingers and hoping.”

If the shutdown had continued, Staton Bullard said she doesn’t know what would have happened. “It kept me up at night, many nights,” she said. “What are we going to do? How long can we carry that ball?”

The executive director at Harbor Inc., Johnston County’s only domestic violence shelter, faced the same sleepless nights. Had the shutdown not stopped, Harbor could have had to close the shelter, said Keri Christensen, executive director.

But even with the shutdown over, the money still has to trickle through bureaucratic red tape. “We’re not going to get our money tomorrow,” Christensen said. “It’s still going to be a few weeks.” Reserve money would have only lasted through October, and waiting for the money to come in now that the shut down is over will be difficult, she said.

“I hear people say, ‘Oh, the shutdown isn’t affecting anybody really; it’s shut down the panda cam.’ But it is affecting real people in our communities greatly,” Christensen said.

Nonprofits often don’t have savings to make up for a lapse in federal funds, said Sherry Harris, president of Reach Out Johnston County, which helps the county’s nonprofit community.

“In the nonprofit world, when I think about a reserve, I don’t think about a huge savings account over here in a bank,” Harris said. “You’re just a little bit over in your checking account that might could help you for a few days.”

Marie Watson is executive director of Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, which runs Johnston County’s Head Start program. The shutdown held up roughly $60,000 in reimbursements for food, meaning the agency had to use reserve money.

Watson said nonprofits like hers can’t save money to prepare for funding freezes like the shutdown. “A lot of times, our grantors want to see us spend everything,” she said. “If you’ve got any money left over, they want it back.”

Non-profits also have another fear: what if the government has another shutdown early next year? Christensen isn’t sure Haven, Inc. could withstand another withholding of funds. They only stayed open this year thanks to an already scheduled fundraiser.

Christensen likened a second shutdown to two hurricanes back-to-back. “The first one comes through and does some damage and you’re just starting to recover from that, and the second one comes up and knocks out all the trees and knocks out all the power,” she said. “It may not be as strong this time but the effects are worse.”

Davis said the shutdown has been a wake-up call for nonprofits to manage their money even more carefully; it came as a double-whammy after mandated sequestration of federal funds had already cut programs. He said nonprofits need to accept that to stay sustainable, they might have to set aside money that would otherwise fund programs and services.

“Because at the end of the day, nobody is looking out for us but ourselves,” he said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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