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    Harsh side of budget cuts

    Preschool, soup kitchens, programs for abused and neglected kids. Social services are disappearing or shrinking.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 30, 2003

    Carmen Harbuck beams about the program that launched her children onto the honor roll.

    Teachers at a Largo preschool have helped Kestler, Knolen, Kirstie and Karissa learn their letters, numbers, colors and shapes, how to cut with scissors and how a student should behave in class.

    Now Harbuck sees the payoff: Her three school-age children regularly make top grades. Her kids are so attuned to learning that Kestler, 4, often reads words that his mother has posted up for Knolen, 6.

    But now, she says, "I really feel sorry for all the kids who can't get into that program."

    In a painful round of budget cuts, the Pinellas County school superintendent has recommended chopping the program that allowed Harbuck's children to attend the high-quality preschool at Southern Oak Elementary School in Largo.

    Across the Tampa Bay area, cutbacks like this are causing more and more people to wonder whether they can afford day care for their children, where they will find their next meal, even if they can afford the medicine that keeps them alive.

    "This the most painful time that I've seen for the health and human service system in the 35 years that I've worked in it," said Martha Lenderman, a mental health consultant and volunteer on several local boards.

    A killer combination of state budget cuts, a sagging economy and dwindling donations from the public have left many of the region's bedrock charities grasping for dollars.

    It has gotten so bad that Gerard Veneman of the Children's Home Inc. in Tampa started calling it a "perfect storm" of financial woes.

    As a result, social service directors say they're facing severe cuts that are bound to hurt later.

    An example: Piles of research show preschool programs that truly prepare kids for kindergarten are one of the wisest social investments government can make. Children who succeed in school are less likely to encounter problems later such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse or dropping out.

    But next year, under the superintendent's proposal, Pinellas would close 37 preschool classes aimed at low-income families at 23 public schools that feature certified teachers and an emphasis on literacy.

    The cuts would mean Kestler wouldn't be able to return to the preschool that helped him so much this year.

    "It's sad," said Harbuck, a nurse from Largo.

    "You've got to eat'

    Wearing blue jeans and a fading America ball cap, Dwayne T. Head sat down at the Salvation Army soup kitchen on Florida Avenue in Tampa. He was grateful for the ribs, corn, potatoes, bread and bananas, but exasperated at his luck.

    He and his wife, Nicolett Motteler, took a Greyhound from Texas to Tampa, each carrying a hundred bucks. But a missed bus and stolen purse wiped out their cash. They took to sleeping on the streets and eating at the soup kitchen, which feeds 400 people a day.

    "We thank God for this place, because this is the only place we've been eating," said Motteler, who is 38 and works as a painter. It was after 2 p.m. when she started in on the ribs and potatoes, her first food of the day.

    Earlier this month, the Salvation Army announced it would have to close this center, to save about $400,000.

    "The donations are just not coming in, they're way down. Not only in our cash donations, even food and those types of things have really hit rock bottom, especially in the last year," said Steve Vick, general manager.

    Head and Motteler were stunned to hear it may close.

    "There'd be a lot of hungry people," said Head, 54, who received a medical discharge from the Army after 12 years. "You mess with a man's belly, you're in trouble. You can sleep on the street if it's good weather, but you've got to eat."

    The people who stand in the food line may get a reprieve. Last week, officials said they had received funds to keep it open a month beyond the scheduled May 4 closing, and possibly longer.

    'Perfect storm'

    Veneman, who uses the "perfect storm" analogy, says several funding challenges are converging at the same time. He directs the Children's Home Inc., which provides a variety of programs for abused and neglected children.

    As he sees it, a series of recent "knee-jerk" legislative decisions have served to "overload an already underfunded child welfare system." Then, he says, "You pile on top of that a lagging, sagging depression-like economy." Add to that the slump in donations.

    To cope, Veneman said the Children's Home slashed $50,000 from its 20 highest-paid employees' salaries to help balance the books.

    But he recently learned the United Way was cutting $134,000 from his agency's residential treatment center. He's trying to absorb the $134,000 cut without reducing the center's 56-bed capacity, or its quality of service.

    And that cut was just one of many the United Way of Tampa Bay imposed on agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, after falling $3-million short of its fundraising goal. The organization cut allocations by an average of 23 percent.

    Veneman is optimistic things will improve but adds, "You can't be in this business without being an eternal optimist, never mind the facts - the two don't go together very well."

    All this turmoil has created a difficult backdrop for the people at Girls Inc., which provides after-school and other programs for girls in Pinellas Park.

    Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board intends to cut its $256,533 funding of the agency, which makes about one-third of Girls Inc.'s budget.

    This is not a money-saving move, JWB officials say. "We're not pulling the services at all," said director of communications Kathy Helmuth. It intends to finance after-school programs for girls. But the agency will seek proposals from different agencies interested in providing the programs because of ongoing concerns about the financial accountability and performance provided by Girls Inc.

    To Girls Inc., which says it has been providing good service and trying to answer JWB's concerns, this still feels like a harsh cut. They're fighting to keep their funding and haven't yet outlined exactly how they would cut back if they lose.

    The specter worries people such as Charles and Maureen Bissonette of Kenneth City in mid-Pinellas County. When they began raising their granddaughter Chelsea, they decided to take in foster children, so she would have more children to be friends with.

    But they're not wealthy. He's a cashier and host at Shells seafood restaurant, and she's an administrative assistant. Both have to work, and that means they need after-school and before-school care.

    Girls Inc. provides both. Chelsea and the two foster girls say they love it.

    "They let us do our homework, and we have a snack and we'll go outside and do a group activity," said Chelsea, 11.

    "We can talk about girly stuff," one of the foster girls said.

    They particularly like the summer program, which involves a lot of field trips.

    The Bissonettes used another after-school program but felt like they were warehousing the girls.

    "It's not only a place for them to go, but it's absolutely worry-free," Charles Bissonette said. "They really provide an invaluable service."

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