Faced with funding cuts that would result from the elimination of earmark grants in the county's proposed 2013 budget, representatives and clients of a number of Montgomery County social services organizations implored the county's board of commissioners Thursday morning to find a way to maintain the county's financial support for their operations.
"You call this support an 'earmark.' We call it a lifeline," said Lilibet Coe, executive director of The Open Line, a Pennsburg-based agency that provides support services to low-income residents of the Upper Perkiomen area.
Coe said the $27,800 that The Open Line stands to lose in 2013 was "a relatively small investment resulting in a very large impact."
Harvey Strauss, co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeast Pennsylvania, estimated that the elimination of that agency's support from the county would mean Legal Aid would be able to serve about 500 fewer clients in Montgomery County in 2013.
"Without Legal Aid, most of these people will have no legal representation of any sort. And their serious problems will undoubtedly get worse. Residents of western, northwestern, and even central parts of Montgomery County who've been served by the Pottstown Legal Aid office [which would close], will be the most severely affected by these cuts," Strauss said.
Supporters of ARC Alliance Turn Out in Force
Perhaps the most compelling testimony of the morning's session came from residents who said they rely on the services of the Reading-based ARC Alliance. ARC Alliance CEO Paul Stengle said the agency, which assists children and families struggling with intellectual and developmental disabilities, would have to "turn away the vast majority" of its Montgomery County clients if the county's budget is approved in its current form. The elimination of the ARC Alliance's earmark would deprive the agency of about $37,000.
Fighting through tears, county resident Erin Dickey spoke of her fear of losing the guidance of Sharon Jones, the ARC Alliance's director of advocacy services, as she navigated her school district's special education services for her son.
"The teachers didn't know how to handle him ... We really need to have Sharon [Jones] and the ARC to help parents like me, who don't know anything [about special education]. I didn't know what an IEP [individual education plan] was. I didn't know what the best thing was for my son. The teachers didn't understand how to deal with his needs. Sharon helped him get where he needed and to where he is today," Dickey said.
Dickey was one of several residents who testified specifically in support of Jones, the ARC Alliance's last remaining advocacy worker. Stengle said the agency had previously had three educational advocates, but that after years of recent cutbacks, only Jones remained.
Jones' 15-year-old daughter, testifying during the hearing's evening session, told the commissioners that the elimination of the $37,000 earmark would "cost my mother her job."
"The elimination of the earmark for the ARC does not mean the end of county funding for the ARC," County Commissioner Josh Shapiro said, noting that the ARC Alliance will receive more than $1.5 million in payments from the county through existing contracts.
The Victim Services Center of Montgomery County, the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League and the Elmwood Park Zoo were among the other entities whose representatives came before the commissioners.
County Commissioner Leslie Richards said the 2013 budgeting process had required "heartbreaking work" and that the decision to eliminate earmarks was "no reflection on the value of these  organizations" that were affected by the cuts.
In a "budget fact sheet" released Thursday, the county government said that the earmark grant process employed under previous county administrations was arbitrary and lacked "specific criteria" for how "winners" and "losers" were chosen.
The $413.8 million budget is scheduled to come up for final approval at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Dec. 6.