Burlington County Times

Proposed Cuts Not Sitting Well

Burlington County Times — Saturday, June 6, 2009

Burlington County Times

MOUNT LAUREL — When Kirstie Kristl separated from her husband, she lost the home and business they shared.

She turned to the Women's Opportunity Center at the YMCA of Burlington County for help.

"There's a lot of women just like me that never thought they'd be in a position where they needed this kind of help," Kristl said. "Then here we are and here they are. I can't say enough."

But program organizers say support groups and job training could be cut because of reduced state funding.

"I encourage the governor and all our elected officials to seriously consider what they are proposing. If these cuts go through, it's my belief it will increase the burden on the state," Kristl said. "More people will be looking toward welfare and crisis centers. If we have the opportunity to stop the crisis before it becomes even greater, it saves money in the long run; it creates a strong work force."

Representatives from organizations in Burlington and Camden counties held a news conference Friday at the YMCA to protest a proposed 10 percent cut to grants funded through the state Department of Community Affairs.

The Better Choices for New Jersey campaign, which was founded last year and represents 41 organizations, including the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Hispanic Director's Association and NJ Citizen Action, organized the event.

"In this fiscal crisis, we have hard choices to make," said Margarita Hernandez, lead organizer of New Jersey Working Families Alliance and a founding member of Better Choices. "But rather than short-sighted cuts, we need to fund critical services like job training and direct aid to families in need so that New Jersey can weather this recession and emerge stronger."

The campaign is calling for a modest tax hike on corporations and residents earning more than $300,000 — Gov. Jon S. Corzine recently hiked taxes for those making more than $400,000 — and increased registration fees for SUVs. Hernandez said that this would help the environment and that the suggestions would bring in a combined $240 million.

Jose Ramos, executive director of Hispanic Social Services Center of Burlington County, said state funding has been flat for years, while demand for services has grown.

"Need is rising, funding is disappearing, and philanthropy is on the decline," Ramos said. "Last year was bad, this year was worse, and next year may be a real question of sustainability for our organization."

Cathi Rendfrey, director of the Women's Opportunity Center, said she has already reduced her budget by $12,000 and is closing the Burlington City office. Another 10 percent cut would force her to stop support groups and lay off staff.

"These budget cuts will mean reduced services for the vulnerable women and families we help," she said.

The center is one of 15 "displaced homemaker centers" around New Jersey, all of which are funded by state grants. They provide job training, computer classes, workshops, and support groups for abused or displaced women.

Rendfrey said a $150,000 annual federal grant had allowed the center to help military families affected by deployments. Over three years the grant assisted more than 200 families pay their bills. That grant disappeared in November.

Kathleen, who asked that her last name be withheld, turned to the center in the fall while her husband was deployed and again recently for help with her divorce.

Grant funds helped her pay her electric bills, insurance and day care for her three children while her husband served in Iraq. She was brought to tears as she described the impact the program has had on her life.

"With the support of the staff and the programs here, I've made it through one of the most difficult periods in my life," she said. "With the help of their financial responsibility class, I'm finally starting to get my credit rating back on track."

Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, understood the concerns about any reduction in aid.

"The global economic recession has presented substantial challenges for the current budget year and difficult choices had to be made about very worthy programs," Ryan said. "Despite the proposed cuts, these grants will be preserved in the upcoming budget to help people who truly need assistance."

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