Slash and Burn

The state's social workers are grappling with budget cuts—and the worst may still be on the way

As lawmakers wrestle with a budget shortfall that grows ever closer to $3 billion for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, agencies across the state are still grappling with the impact of a $1.6 billion budget fix that the Legislature passed in January to balance the current year's finances.

That collection of cuts gives a preview of what lies ahead if state lawmakers can't find a way to keep funding for a host of programs that aid a range of Arizonans, from newborn children to aging seniors.

As Claire Conrad points out in the accompanying story, preventative programs designed to help children and their families have been gutted in recent weeks.

But that's merely the tip of the spear. Liz Barker Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, says the agency had to cut roughly 800 staff members as a result of the $103 million cut to DES in the January budget adjustment. (At the same time, the agency needed an additional $50 million just to keep up with the demand for services, essentially making the cut $153 million.)

The workers who remain must take a certain number of furlough days off without pay, putting more stress on the reduced staff to deliver services.

The layoffs included 159 investigators and case managers with Child Protective Services, including 29 in Pima County. The cuts have brought CPS staff levels down to the number who were working for the agency in 2004. That means that fewer reports of abuse can be investigated, according to Barker Alvarez.

Meanwhile, more cuts may be on the way: In response to a request from Gov. Jan Brewer, DES staffers drew up budgets showing the impact of cuts from 5 to 20 percent in the upcoming budget year.

A 20 percent would mean "completely changing the face of human services in Arizona," says Barker Alvarez. "At that point, CPS would be doing nothing but investigating abuse after it has occurred and removing children when there's an imminent risk of harm. There's no more prevention; there's no more funding to try to work to keep families together when it's safe to do so."

Even as the cuts are being made, the demand for services continues to grow. For example, in February 2008, 44,557 Pima County households were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which makes them eligible for food stamps. In February 2009, 56,033 families were in the program, an increase of more than 25 percent.

More families are also turning to food banks to help stretch their grocery budget, but those organizations are taking hits from the state, too.

Ginny Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, says that food banks across the state are seeing demand grow by 40 to 50 percent, while the budget fix lowered state aid by $160,000. Some of that was handled by trimming administrative costs, but $70,000 came directly out of programs designed to buy food.

The headlines are filled with similar stories. Arizona school districts have informed more than 5,000 teachers that they may not have jobs next year. Many could get rehired if lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer can agree on less-draconian spending cuts, but until they do, local administrators can't draw up their own budgets.

The universities, a popular target of GOP budget-cutters, are planning new fees of at least $1,000 on top of tuition, which has continued to grow every year.

And so it goes as lawmakers, now past the 100-day mark in the 2009 legislative session, continue to crunch the numbers.

Brewer has yet to produce her own budget plan, and is instead waiting to see what the Legislature can produce. But she has warned lawmakers that she won't sign a budget that cuts more than a billion dollars in spending.

Republican legislative leaders have been backing away from the deep cuts that were initially proposed, partially because the state will lose out on hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars if they reduce state spending in certain areas.

Earlier this week, the GOP caucus released a plan to close the budget gap that combined cuts in spending with federal stimulus dollars and a grab at hundreds of millions of dollars in school, city and county funds.

Democrats were skeptical that the GOP plan would work without running into legal problems or costing the state stimulus dollars.

"It's just more cuts to education and social services while they raid the cities, counties and school districts," says Rep. Steve Farley of Tucson, a Democrat. "There's nothing responsible about it at all. There's nothing that even makes sense about this budget."

Jim Murphy, president and CEO of the Pima Council on Aging, says that the original GOP budget proposal zeroed out the $17 million that now pays for aging services throughout the state. Murphy says he doesn't believe that the final budget will be that brutal, but his agency is already scrambling to provide programs for seniors as demand grows.

Murphy's agency absorbed two cuts from the city of Tucson and one from Pima County this year, but the deepest slice from his budget came courtesy of the state, which trimmed $416,000.

Murphy says reserve funds and some other conservative budgeting moves have allowed his agency to keep providing services without any layoffs, although there is now a waiting list for new clients.

Murphy says the typical PCOA client is an 80-year-old woman living on Social Security who is trying to remain in her home rather than go into assisted living. He says his agency, on average, helps delay that transition for three years. Murphy reckons he's saving the state a good deal of money, since it costs roughly $250 to $300 a month to provide home services—while it costs Pima County taxpayers $3,500 a month for assisted living for qualified seniors. "We believe it's the right thing to do, but financially, it also makes a lot of sense," Murphy says. "If we don't provide that service, they're going to deteriorate pretty quick."

Murphy warns that any future cuts will mean that services—such as helping elderly people who live on their own to bathe twice a week, or enjoy an occasional hot meal—will have to be cut back.

"We're at bare bones now," Murphy says. "We can't afford another penny without affecting services."