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United Way cuts funding deeply

Officials whose programs depend on the support are thunderstruck by reductions averaging 23 percent.

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2003


CLEARWATER -- Blaming a sagging economy, the United Way of Tampa Bay on Wednesday cut funding to scores of charities in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties by an average of 23 percent.

"The word that comes to mind is painful," said Diana Baker, interim president and CEO of United Way of Tampa Bay.

This year's United Way campaign fell $3-million short of its $25.5-million goal, and 11 percent below the amount raised last year.

The cuts for the year starting July 1 were harsher than many agencies expected, and some said it will mean cuts to services, staff reductions and some layoffs.

"Whew, it kind of takes my breath away," said Lorie Briggs, a spokeswoman for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, upon learning that its allocation will be cut by $131,000, or 34 percent.

"This hurts," Briggs said. "It will have a direct impact on the number of kids we can serve."

The United Way of Tampa Bay funds 25 percent of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Hillsborough.

"It's been a rough year for charities," Briggs said. "This is not the only hit we've taken this year."

United Way also cut funding for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Pinellas County by $30,998, or 20.4 percent.

Les Baron, director of the Gulf Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, fell silent when told of the $120,000, or 35 percent, cut in its United Way allocation.

"This is huge," he said. "This is going to be tough."

Likely, he said, it will force the organization to lay off employees and cancel some programs in the eight counties it serves, including Hillsborough.

Valerie DiVeccho, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Women, said a cut of nearly $248,000 in the Tampa agency's allocation will mean it won't provide crisis counseling, employment preparation and placement and a variety of senior services to about 1,500 people and their families next year.

Most agencies had been preparing for months for the cuts -- freezing job openings, cutting back on such things as travel for training, and relying more heavily on volunteers. But like many, DiVeccho said her agency was not prepared for "the severity of the reduction."

The cuts come at a time when many agencies are already struggling from state budget cuts and their own flagging fundraising efforts.

"It's a little bit like, 'How do you prepare for a perfect storm?' " said Gerard Veneman, executive director of the Children's Home Inc., a residential facility for abused and neglected children in Tampa.

"It's the economy," said the United Way's Baker.

Companies are reducing workforces, leading to a drop in employee payroll deductions for the United Way. And corporate giving is way down, Baker said.

"After Sept. 11, all of these changes started happening so fast," Baker said.

Most agencies had been preparing for months for the cuts. ... But like many, Valerie DiVeccho, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Women, said her agency was not prepared for "the severity of the reduction."

Mike Blount, the United Way's finance chairman, said fundraising was down 11 percent this year. He ticked off a list of big-city United Way programs facing similar drops.

"This is not something unique to us," Blount said. "It's down across the country."

Adding to the shortfall was a pledge made not to cut any programs for a year after the Hillsborough and Pinellas United Ways merged last summer. The United Way had to spend $2.5-million of its reserves to keep that commitment.

Anticipating the shortfalls, the United Way in January eliminated 15 jobs, a fifth of its staff, to reduce its administrative budget by 26 percent. Of the money donated to the United Way of Tampa Bay, 11 percent goes toward administrative costs.

"We did our cuts first," Baker said.

The United Way then turned its attention to programs. Rather than make across-the-board cuts of 23 percent, the executive board decided it would evaluate every single program.

The United Way marshalled 100 community volunteers to prioritize programs based on factors such as community need, collaboration with other services, performance and efficiency.

Of the 143 programs funded by the United Way, 20 will get the same funding as this year; another 33 will see a reduction of less than 15 percent. Sixteen programs will get no funds at all. None of the programs that lost all funding rely solely on United Way dollars, Baker said.

The United Way can only allocate what it raises in donations, Baker said.

"We believe the community can and will respond to pick up the slack where it is needed," she said.

At the board meeting Wednesday, Gene E. Marshall, a senior vice president of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., was elected the 2003 campaign chairman. He replaces Marty Petty, executive vice president of Times Publishing Co., who resigned last month after the United Way of Tampa Bay decided to cancel an appearance by Susan Sarandon at one of its events.

Marshall said he would "try his darndest" to turn things around in fundraising next year.

"We are going to be successful together," he vowed.

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