Greenwich candidates sound off on shrinking safety net
By Hannah Dellinger Updated 3:27 pm EDT, Tuesday, October 23, 2018
GREENWICH — The nonprofit Kids in Crisis once had room to house 20 children and teens in its emergency shelter in Cos Cob.
But after the state in 2015 cut the $1.5 million in annual funding Kids in Crisis used to receive, Fairfield County’s sole shelter for at-risk youth can now only house 12 young people.
The agency has had to adapt its model to run entirely on private donations to continue operating its 24/7 emergency hotline and medical, educational and therapeutic services for children up to 17 years old.
“We’re an emergency lifeline for many families,” said Shari Shapiro, executive director of Kids in Crisis. “(Cuts) tie our hands in being able to do what we need to do.”
Kids is Crisis isn’t the only Connecticut nonprofit affected by state cuts and flat funding since the recession. Many have folded, including Families in Crisis, a nonprofit organization that helped families of prisoners. Others have merged or cut back services and staff considerably.
Because private sector agencies have been contracted to perform many social services across the state, administrators say cuts are adversely affecting those on the front lines of combatting poverty and the safety net they provide vulnerable populations.
Economic stress on families has a ripple effect in communities and on the economy, Shapiro said, adding that people need access to programs which will help them become self-sufficient, for the benefit of society as a whole.
Many other agencies haven’t experienced funding cuts, but their dollars from the state have remained flat year after year — despite inflation and cost of living increases.
“It’s still a cut because the cost of delivering services goes up annually,” said Bob Arnold, president of Greenwich-based Family Centers. “Even if inflation is only 2 or 3 percent a year and you get the same funding you did the previous year, you just got a 3 percent cut.”
Living with the constant threat of significant cuts has hindered growth in the nonprofit sector, Arnold said.
“The state is running short on revenue most years,” he said. “At some point, they have to make up that shortfall. The history is that the state often makes it up by cutting programs it can easily cut.”
About one third of Greenwich’s population is struggling to make ends meet, according to an Asset Limited, Income Constrained Report recently released by the United Way. Because the town has a higher cost of living than most of the state, Arnold said Greenwich has a higher burden helping people with limited assets.
Both Arnold and Shapiro call for legislators to seek more public and private partnerships because they say organizations like theirs can deliver services more efficiently and cost-effectively than state agencies.
Arnold said he hopes legislators will find a way to secure stable funding for nonprofits yearly, so the agencies can ensure continuity in the programs and services they offer.
State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-36, said his party has tried to prevent the hardship service agencies are experiencing.
“For the last 10 years, my mission has been to prevent what is happening today from happening,” he said. “I’ve tried to keep budgets balanced by not over-borrowing so we don’t crowd out dollars that could go into social service funds. And I will keep up the fight.”
As a general rule, Frantz said he doesn’t want to take funding away from nonprofit organizations.
“The state should do everything it can to support nonprofits,” he said.
Alexandra Bergstein, Democratic challenger to Frantz in next month’s election, said she wants to support the prevention services nonprofits offer.
“I believe in prevention — it always costs less to prevent problems than fix them later,” she said. “And the data proves that social services like health care, education and job training, pay for themselves in the long run.”
Prevention services create a net positive, Bergstein said.
“In addition to the economics, it’s also the right thing to do,” she said. “Every child should have a safe and healthy childhood, with a good education that leads to opportunities for gainful employment.”
Both candidates agree the best way to support nonprofits is to get the state’s balance sheet in order so Connecticut can invest in them again.
Mike Bocchino, Republican state representative in the 150th District, said it’s incredibly important the state continues to take care of its most vulnerable.
“I am a member of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Caucus and we have made great strides in helping and assisting this group legislatively,” he said. “But we need to make certain, whether private nonprofits or state-run agencies, that those individual and families that are dependent upon our safety net are given the assistance that they need.”
His challenger this election season, Democrat Stephen Meskers, said because the state is facing a challenging time, the Legislature might need to think more about which methods bring the most benefit to those in need.
“I believe that nonprofits may be a large part of the answer,” he said. “I would only worry that in some cases oversight functions may need to be increased.”
Moving forward, Meskers said he would like to see tax incentives for the private sector to invest in nonprofits. Money saved from shifting delivery of services to the nonprofit sector should be used to fund the nonprofits, he added. He’d also like to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“Every additional (dollar) paid to (workers) will get spent, will generate economic activity, creating a multiplier effect, resulting in greater taxpaying revenue from sales tax, for instance, and will reduce a myriad of medical and social service burdens and costs,” he said.
Bocchino said the first thing the state needs to do to help nonprofits and the people they serve is right its fiscal ship.
“A sound economy will provide jobs (and) lower taxes will provide residents the extra revenue to take care of their families,” he said.
The incumbent also suggested nonprofits may be able to accomplish more if they join forces.
“Some of these groups could probably combine their efforts, since all are competing for a slice from the same pie that has existed for years,” he said.
State Rep. Fred Camillo, R-151, said providing a safety net to those at-risk is one of the most important functions of government.
“When you’re a public servant, the calls that you get from people in binds you take seriously and you’re often the last resort for them,” he said. “You put yourself in their shoes and you go to bat for them like they are a member of your family. I don’t know any other way to do it.”
Camillo said the Greenwich Republican delegation has worked across party lines to secure funding for social services, including restoring money to the medical savings plan, restoring funding to the elderly nutrition program and funding a program that provides rail and bus service for low-income people.
One of the challenges facing Greenwich, Camillo said, is the tendency of legislators in Hartford to target nonprofits based here because Greenwich is known as a place of great wealth.
Democratic hopeful in the 151st District, Laura Kostin, said early intervention services like universal pre-K are vital to the state.
“Providing help early on improves outcomes for children,” she said. “Poverty is the biggest factor affecting the education of children in Connecticut. Job training, affordable child care and public housing also help families who are working hard but having trouble making ends meet. I believe all families should have the opportunity to thrive in Connecticut.”
In order to help those families, Kostin wants to address the state’s fiscal position.
“It is the root of all our difficulties,” she said. “I’ve consistently said we can’t cut our way out of this mess. We need to grow our tax base to improve our finances. Generating more revenue is key to helping meet the needs of our communities.”
Kostin believes raising the minimum wage will help the state’s economy and its workers. Closing the gender pay gap is also essential, Kostin added.
“Women in our state make only about 80 cents on the dollar compared with men,” she said. “For minority women, it’s even lower. We need to address the pay gap, because it makes it harder for women to afford necessary goods and services — and it results in lower savings rates and investment for their futures.”