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Budget Uncertainty Lingers in Maine Amid Temporary Congressional Deal
10/16/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

While it appears that Congress will avoid a financial default and end the government shutdown, the solution is a temporary one. As Patty Wight reports, the three-month reprieve still leaves fiscal uncertainty for federally-funded programs and for the people who depend on them.

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Shutdown effects

Sharon Philbrick Bergeron and Jim Lysen, walking in Lewiston.

Many of the federally-funded organizations that provide social services in Androscoggin County can be found within a few blocks of each other in downtown Lewiston. Just a stone's throw from city hall is Community Concepts - an organization that offers housing, economic development and other services like fuel assistance.

CEO Mike Burke says the temporary deal to end the government shutdown is better than nothing. "But my wish would be let's get to the compromises they need to make, so at least people know - people we're working with and the non-profits and other people who are trying to provide services - know the direction we're going to go in."

Congress has until Jan. 15 to negotiate a long-term budget, but the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Burke says he's worried his organization will have to implement retroactive cuts.

"In January, we'll provide a third of the year, on average, of services," Burke says, "and we really face the possibility that they could come back and Congress could pass a budget that includes cuts that we have to try to go back in time to make."

About a block away from Community Concepts is the Androscoggin Head Start and Child Care program, which provides education, mental, and social services for families. Since the shutdown, the program has been paying for snacks and lunches with no guarantee of reimbursement, says Finance Director Sharon Philbrick Bergeron.

She says her program dodged a bullet during the most recent shutdown, and didn't have to close, but the new January deadline for Congress to pass a federal budget is worrisome, "because we are a January 1 grantee. So just like the October 1st grantees that had to shutdown without the funding, we would be in the same position. So that's very problematic."

The Androscoggin Head Start currently serves 275 children. That's down from 350 after federal and state cuts over the past few years. Bergeron says the program has also had to cut staff from 120 down to 75. But there is still a strong need for services, she says.

"We have a wait list. We could double. We could double in size easily," she says.

A good reason, says Jim Lysen, for Congress to examine how the country should generate revenue to fund these types of programs as it works on a long-term budget. Lysen is the executive director of Community Clinical Services, a federally-funded health center in Lewiston, around the corner from Head Start.

"People have talked about corporate loopholes and whatever. I think we really have to look at a fair tax policy, and that really impacts health care delivery, Head Start, heating assistance, all of the federal programs," he says. "And government does do good things. And I think that's what's lost. People want to get rid of government - government does good things."

Congress will likely soon have three months to come to an agreement on the shape and scope of the federal budget.

Photo: Patty Wight


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