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Legal aid providers worry about 2012

Legal aid providers, who just dodged a bullet in current year federal funding cuts, are more worried about 2012 financing.

They are breathing a sigh of relief that the propped cut to the Legal Services Corporation for this year was reduced from $70 million to $15.8 million, but know that will be compounded next year, in addition to state and local aid reductions.

“I think that nationwide, the cuts will have an impact that is shortsighted,” said C. Kenneth Perri, executive director of Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc., a nonprofit law firm that disburses LSC funds for legal aid programs in 14 counties.

“I think Legal Services brings money into local economies in terms of benefits and, more importantly, it saves local, state and, on occasion, federal governments by doing things like avoiding homelessness, preventing kids entering foster homes and things along those lines. The cut will actually cost federal money.”

LSC, according to its website (www.lsc.gov), is the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation, distributing 95 percent of its funds to 136 independent nonprofit legal aid programs, including LawNY.

The $15.8 million cut is part of a compromising continuing resolution, expected to be voted on by Congress on Thursday, to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Perri said the cut to his firm amounts to about $80,000, roughly 4 percent of its nearly $2 million grant, opposed to the $240,000 reduction LawNY was facing under a proposal passed by the House in mid-March.

Still, Perri said, he will have to let one attorney go, which means about 150 fewer families or more than 300 people, will not be served.

For now, he is meeting with the leaders of the various LawNY offices to determine where cuts may be made. He said services will be curtailed individually office by office, taking into account which resources are available to address the greatest needs and which other local agencies may be able to help.

LawNY’s highest volume practice areas are housing (homelessness prevention, evictions, foreclosures), government benefits (Medicaid, food stamps) and family law (domestic violence, orders of protection). The latter is not offered in Monroe County, which gets its related services from the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.

Perri is more concerned about future funding. He said the program will be able to absorb the reduction with a $1 million fund balance. He said expenses outpace revenue. The total 2011 budget, including the carried over fund balance, is $6.3 million. Perri said that fund balance will be gone at the end of the year and cuts next year are expected to be deeper.

“The larger battle looms,” Perri said, noting “very, very preliminary” revenue projections for next year will be about $600,000 less than expenses. If that happens, he said LawNY will have to cut eight to 10 positions or nearly 20 percent of its attorneys.

“We’re scrambling to put our house back in order,” Perri said. “We have a big hole to dig out from under. If there are cuts in 2012, beyond that hopefully we’ll be in a position where we can rebuild.”

All of those cuts are in addition to cuts in state funding. For instance, LawNY received $135,000 in Assembly discretionary funding in 2009-10, which was cut by nearly 80 percent for 2010-11 and has been eliminated.

Perri said the firm is also very aggressive about seeking other funding so additional revenue streams may be available. For instance, there are pending proposals with the Department of Justice for funds that might help domestic violence victims and the Department of Veteran Affairs to offset homelessness among veterans. Perri acknowledges those sources are also facing cuts too, though.

The largest chunk of the LSC grant — about $832,000 — was allotted to LawNY’s Rochester affiliate, the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center, whose managing attorney, Louis Prieto, said he will lose about $35,000 as a result of the federal reduction on top of another $90,000 lost in state cuts.

The total represents about 8 percent of his office’s $1.8 million budget. He also has a 2010 fund balance to cover the reduced cut, plus savings realized from a hiring freeze and other efficiencies.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Prieto said. “Considering what was originally proposed, the cuts aren’t nearly as bad as what they might have been, however this is just for 2011 where we thought we already had a stable budget so it’s a cut from monies we already thought we had coming in and budgeted. The picture for 2012 is much more dire.”

Prieto said he does not project any layoffs in 2011, but all bets are off for 2012.

LSC, through LawNY, also aids the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County Inc., which provides pro bono attorneys to help people with civil legal services.

“VSL has taken severe cuts from the state of New York and is hopeful that we will not receive additional cuts from our LSC provider,” said VSL Executive Director Sheila A. Gaddis who was waiting to hear how the current cut will affect her agency.

The other three centers LawNY serves are Legal Assistance of the Finger Lakes in Geneva, where Perri is headquartered, which was to receive $$292,000; Southern Tier Legal Services (Bath, Olean and Jamestown areas), $520,000; and Chemung County Neighborhood Legal Services (Elmira) and Tompkins/Tioga Neighborhood Legal Services (Ithaca) combined, $341,000.

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