As budget cuts loom, aid agencies fear worst

By David Abel
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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Having been hit hard in recent years, as budget cuts have taken a steady toll and demands for their services have spiked, the state’s social service providers now worry that the worst is yet to come.

The Patrick administration announced this week that it intends to cut as much as $1.5 billion from next year’s budget, potentially eviscerating social services statewide. The cuts have loomed for months as political leaders and economists warned of a shortfall for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

With Patrick and state lawmakers saying they need to make between $1 billion to $2 billion in reductions and with federal stimulus money exhausted, the reality of an even worse year is sinking in. Providers are pleading for the governor to spare them.

“I think everyone in the human services field is incredibly nervous,’’ said Gary Blumenthal, president of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers in Waltham, which represents about 25,000 residents who receive state assistance.

Over the past three years, the state has cut $63 million to support services, including employment help and housing support, that benefit the association’s members, he said. He expects dire consequences.

“We’re hoping that the safety net will be protected by the governor and the Legislature, because there’s nowhere else for these people to go,’’ he said. “The budget cuts for our population can be deadly.’’

State officials said yesterday that they recognize the pain the cuts could cause but that they are obliged to balance the budget.

“We understand how important the safety net is and have done our best to protect programs for vulnerable populations as demand has grown to unprecedented levels during the recession,’’ said Alex Zaroulis, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance. “Given the magnitude of the challenges we face . . . tough choices will have to be made across state government.’’

Many social service providers hope the administration finds additional money or that the economy improves quickly enough to avoid the worst.

Last year, Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, expected the 85 homeless programs his organization includes to have to cut 70 beds, among about 500 beds he feared would be cut statewide. But stimulus aid, money from a tax settlement, and slightly higher-than-expected tax collections allowed the state to close a budget gap of $120 million without the cuts.

He said he understands last year’s last-minute save is unlikely to be repeated this year.

Some groups have proposals for how the state could avoid cutting aid to those most in need, as well as those who serve them.

Michael Weekes — president of the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, which represents 185,000 people who work in human services — asked the state this week to set up a $28 million “salary reserve’’ to support providers earning less than $40,000 a year.

“Developing budgets for human services is not just an arithmetic exercise, and it must be carefully planned to avoid harm and the continuance of the sector being a fiscal punching bag for the state,’’ he said.

Al Norman, director of Mass Home Care in Burlington, has called on the administration to suspend tax exemptions and credits for corporations for two years, which he said would save the state nearly $1 billion.

“Human services agencies, to use Governor Patrick’s term, feel like they are being ‘kicked to the curb’ by the ongoing recessionary impact on revenues,’’ he said. “We believe the economic pain should be shared.’’

He and others argue that money spent on social services ends up saving the state from paying for more expensive emergency services or medical care.

Bill Henning — executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, which helps about 3,000 people in the area live independently — said money the state spends on personal care attendants is more economical than paying to keep people in nursing homes or in hospitals.

For John Pirone, who is deaf and who serves as president of the Disability Policy Consortium in Boston, the cuts have already been too much. Since 2008, he said, the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has experienced a loss of 15 percent of its budget.

More of a loss means fewer interpreters, fewer case workers, and fewer deaf residents living independently.

“The bottom line is that the more budget cuts we endure, the more our civil rights are reduced,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at