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Legal services providers assess gloomy outlook

It’s a done deal.

What were announced last week as proposed cuts to the national organization funding civil legal services are now law. And the news does not get any better looking into the near future.

Providers, who rely on the Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corporation, are left to pick up the pieces and try to find additional funding sources while struggling to help clients whose numbers keep increasing as the economy continues to stagnate.

Many from New York joined in a conference call Monday to discuss the implications for their programs.

“Everybody on the call was very concerned about the future,” said Stephen Barr, LSC’s director of media relations. “Everyone’s aware that federal and state governments are grappling with their budgets and how to hold down deficit spending and be responsible fiscal stewards. At the same time, many of these programs have had increases in requests for help. There’s a lot of tension here when you have more people seeking help and you’re worried your resources may be declined.”

Legal Services Corporation is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. It distributes about 95 percent of its total funding to 136 independent nonprofit legal aid programs including Legal Assistance of Western New York Inc., Neighborhood Legal Services Inc. and Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York Inc., all of which serve counties in the Fourth Department.

Congress voted late last week to cut LSC funding for 2012 by 13.9 percent, reducing its budget from $404.2 million to $348 million. The money for basic field grants will be cut from $372.9 million to $322.4 million or by 14.8 percent.

Barr said the bill was passed by Congress on Thursday and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Friday. Barr took part in the Monday conference call that included the directors from the three agencies serving Western and Central New York.

“We got our final number for 2012,” said C. Kenneth Perri, executive director of LawNY which oversees programs in 14 Western New York counties including the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center and LawNY offices in Geneva, Bath and additional sites outside the Fourth Department.

His agency’s LSC funding will be reduced by $283,075, from $1.9 million to $1.6 million. Perri said if the complete amount went to attorney positions, it would mean 4.7 fewer attorneys and 700 fewer families served. LawNY’s LSC funding was reduced by 4 percent — or $82,178 — from 2010 to this year.

Perri said he is submitting his budget to his board’s audit committee Monday. It will go to the full board Dec. 12. He said right now, expenses for 2012 exceed revenue by $758,000.

“We’re going to have to do some short-term planning for 2012,” Perri said. “Everything will be on the table.”

He said that includes staff reductions, salary freezes, furloughs and greater employee contributions to health and pension plans.

He said the LSC cuts will have a ripple effect for agencies LawNY assists such as the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County Inc. which is set to receive $72,185 from LawNY in 2012.

Perri said he thinks that amount will remain, but there is a lot of uncertainty regarding 2013. He said that year, LawNY will have to look at some reductions to what it provides for VLSP, although it would not be completely cut.

“It’s a disaster,” said Sheila A. Gaddis, VLSP’s executive director. “It’s very difficult for all of us.”

She said the LawNY money allows VSLP to provide services in 665 cases. A reduction would result in the loss of the equivalent of 1.75 full-time staff positions. The program has 13 people with 10.3 as full-time equivalent.

“Reducing our caseload due to budget cuts would severely impact the increased number of clients we are seeing due to the economic downturn,” Gaddis said. “We would be reducing services in areas of greatest need such as unemployment insurance benefit appeals and foreclosures.”

Also uncertain are what impacts the failure of Congress’ supercommittee to reach an agreement on $1.5 trillion in cuts in the next 10 years to reduce the deficit. That failure is supposed to trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, split between national security and domestic programs.

In a statement issued this week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the inaction of the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction means New York could lose $5 billion in federal funding in the next 10 years.

“If mandatory domestic cuts are going to take place, it could very well affect our 2013 funding,” said Paul J. Lupia, executive director, Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York Inc., which provides services in 13 Central New York counties, including six in the Fourth Department. “It is unclear what affect that may have.”

Lupia said John Constance, LSC’s director of government relations and public affairs, and Cheryl Nolan, the state’s LSC program counsel, reviewed with callers the efforts LSC had made and expressed disappointment in the final result while assuring them LSC would make every effort to secure funding for 2013.

“To have this type of cut in the face of the overwhelming need for services right now is extremely disappointing,” Lupia said. He is facing the loss of seven case handler positions for 2012, representing more than 1,000 cases.

Barr said New York is actually in better shape than some other states because of the leadership of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Lippman, who has been focusing on civil legal services, included $50 million in his budget request for 2012. That was cut in half before the state finalized its entire spending package in March. Judge Lippman’s 2013 budget proposal is due to the state Legislature Dec. 1.

“Without adequate funding for legal services, the ‘justice gap’ in the United States will continue to grow,” New York State Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III, says in a statement issued late last week.

He notes legal services programs funded by LSC help clients deal with serious, non-criminal legal matters such as child custody, domestic violence, apartment evictions, bankruptcy and accessing unemployment, Social Security and health benefits. According to LSC, 63 million Americans have incomes that are low enough to qualify for legal assistance, a 17 percent increase since 2008.

“Today, LSC recipient organizations also must address the increasing legal needs of veterans, active duty military personnel and their families,” Doyle says.

He also notes NYSBA supported President Obama’s $450 million funding request for LSC, but that “even at $450 million, the legal needs of most low-income people in New York and the nation will not be met. A $450 million appropriation would be far less than what Congress approved in 1995, which in today’s dollars would be equivalent to $605 million.”

The American Bar Association warned access to justice could be compromised for Americans living near the poverty line as a result of the $56 million cut.

“Funding provided through the Legal Services Corporation is the only way millions of Americans can bring their civil cases — child support and custody decisions, foreclosures, and veterans’ benefit disputes, for example — to court,” says ABA President William T. Robinson III in a statement issued Thursday. “Congress must weigh the need to shrink our nation’s burgeoning budget deficit against the fundamental need of low-income citizens to access our justice system.”