Sequestration cuts being felt in area
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Jul 10, 2013 | 4124 views |  0 comments | 79 79 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Volunteers prepare lunch plates for seniors at Oxford Senior Center. The Oxford Senior Center was impacted by federal budget cuts. (Photo by Trent Penny)
Volunteers prepare lunch plates for seniors at Oxford Senior Center. The Oxford Senior Center was impacted by federal budget cuts. (Photo by Trent Penny)
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Seventy fewer low-income children in the area will receive health and education assistance this year, a snapshot of the larger effect recent federal budget cuts have had on eastern Alabama.

After four months, the loss of nearly $85 billion in federal spending, known as sequestration, is being felt to varying degrees at agencies throughout the area. From disaster preparedness to the delivery of meals for the elderly, programs across the region have faced cuts, with some capable of absorbing them better than others.

For the Cheaha Regional Head Start, however, the cuts mean 70 fewer children will participate in the agency’s programs this year, said Dora Jones, director of the agency.

The Cheaha Regional Head Start uses federal funding to provide education, health and other services to almost 900 low-income children in its six-county area each year — nearly 500 in Calhoun County alone. Jones said the available slots at the various Head Starts will be made available to those children with the greatest need. She said the cutbacks will be spread out among all the Head Starts in the region.

"We're trying to do it in a way that has the least impact on families ... making adjustments so we can still provide the same level of services," Jones said. "You hate for this to happen, but hopefully this too will pass."

Jones said Head Start will also be cutting back on employees just through the summer, when the agency's programs are not active.

"There will just be like a skeleton crew during the summer," she said.

Bill Curtis, executive director of the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, said sequestration has cut funding to several of his agency's services, such as its prescription drug assistance and Medicaid assistance programs for the elderly.

"We'll offer the same services, but we'll have an inability to reach out to additional seniors," Curtis said. "If an eligible senior drops out of a program ... we won't be filling up that slot."

Curtis said the agency's meal delivery program also received cuts, but the Alabama Legislature provided funds to keep it functional. The program provides meals to low-income elderly residents in the area and to local senior centers every day.

Belva Durham, project director for the Development Commission’s senior center services, said that without the extra state money, the meals program would have suffered considerably.

"It would have left us with no other recourse but to reduce the number of meals at the centers," Durham said.

She said several of the smaller centers in the area already receive only 25 meals a day — the minimum number of meals required by federal regulation.

"So it would have hurt some of the bigger centers since we can't reduce anymore from anywhere else," she said.

Donald Williamson, state health officer, said the Alabama Department of Public Health projects between $5 million and $8 million less in federal funding this year for its main operating budget due to sequestration. The cuts have partially resulted in less money for disaster preparedness in the area. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $8.5 million to the state health department last week for an annual disaster preparedness grant, down from $9 million last year and $13 million in 2008, Williamson said.

Williamson said much of the money is used to fund specially trained teams that coordinate assistance in disaster situations, such as nurses.

"On the county and state level, we now have fewer people to respond to disasters compared to prior years," Williamson said.

Mary Gomillion, administrator of the Calhoun County Health Department, said this area's team will still be able to provide the same level of services, despite recent budget cuts and fewer team members. Anniston's team has helped in several disasters over the years, such as providing tetanus shots in Ohatchee after the 2011 tornado.

"We've consolidated the Anniston region with Gadsden's, so we have a good share of people covering just a slightly larger area," Gomillion said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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