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Concerns Grow as Lebanon Relies More on Outside Help for the Needy

City councilors and nonprofit directors are raising concerns that money set aside in the city budget to help low-income households has largely gone unspent, despite a harsh economic climate.

Facing consecutive years of belt-tightening in the city budget, the Human Services Department has relied more heavily on outside nonprofit groups to help those facing economic difficulties, leading some to question whether the city is meeting its obligation under state law to provide a safety net for the needy.

In August and September, the Human Services Department accepted seven cases and denied one, while referring 398 cases to outside agencies, according to city records.

City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss said that Human Services Director Shannon Hastings-Fox is trying to “meet the needs in a creative way, but what that has set her up for is the appearance that her department isn’t needed.”

“Last year, we were in the same place,” said Prentiss of the department’s reduced role. “But I think it’s much more glaring, and there’s a pattern.”

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said that while she is a strong advocate for partnering with local agencies, “there can be a fine line between collaborating and partnering and cost-shifting.”

“If we’re giving out less assistance directly, we need to be thinking about putting some of those dollars to the people who are providing help to needy families,” she added.

At a budget workshop on Monday night, City Councilor Bruce Bronner also raised concerns about the way Human Services funds were being allocated. Bronner could not be reached this week for additional comment.

Hastings-Fox is not only the Human Services director, but also the department’s lone employee for the foreseeable future; the assistant director’s position was left unfilled in the proposed 2013 budget.

Of all the clients Hastings-Fox sees, she said in an interview, “99 percent of the time, there’s no need to file an application.”

“I should probably start tracking the dollar figure that I save (with outside referrals),” said Hastings-Fox, “But there’s no time.”

The Human Services Department provides direct assistance to the city’s neediest residents. Under state law, “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has a residence there.”

In practice, Lebanon’s Human Services office is a safety net of last resort.

Of the $101,700 set aside for direct assistance to the needy in the 2011 city budget, the city spent only $20,581, with nearly $18,000 of that amount going to rent assistance. And while the city set aside $19,200 for food, utilities, fuel and medical assistance that year, they spent only $262 for those purposes.

Sara Kobylenski, director of The Upper Valley Haven — a White River Junction-based social services organization — said she had no idea so many funds were left unspent, and added that she was especially distressed by the lack of spending on fuel, rent and utilities assistance.

“I am appalled,” said Koblyenski. “At a time when all of (the nonprofits) are struggling to provide a little bit, to have a pool of funds that they have not brought to the table when they’re sending folks to organizations ... We were working under the asssumption that they did not have the resources to bring to the table.”

Koblyenski said that she would “be happy to take $60,000 of rent money from Lebanon and help them meet their statuatory obligations,” referring to the state statute that mandates all municpalities to provide a level of direct assistance to those with low-incomes, though the law does not specify a minimum amount of funding to be spent.

In the city of Claremont, $431,440 was set aside in the budget for welfare purposes in the year of 2012. Through September, the city has spent $319,389 of that funding, with $174,000 going to rent assistance alone.

In budget talks last year, Hill said the city should consider reallocating unspent funds for direct assistance to outside agencies, which have shouldered much of the burden for social services in Lebanon, given funding cuts to the Human Services Department .

City Manager Greg Lewis said this week that he was not in favor of that idea, citing the need to have “sustainable ongoing relationships with our nonprofits.

“When we fund these, we have to fund these and stabilize and be good partners,” said Lewis. “And good partners don’t change the facts all the time, so we consistently fund toward the budget rather than change midstream.”

Lewis said that in order to keep property taxes at a lower level, he would continue to turn to the Human Services Department, along with the municipal Airport and the city’s fire, police and public works departments when looking to scale back spending. He added that he wanted to “completely redo” the city’s Human Services Department.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have two people or one, because we don’t have the resources to do the full wrap-around,” said Lewis. “We’ve just got to pick our part, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Catherine Hogan is the director of development and community relations at the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire, a nonprofit home care organization that receives funding from the city of Lebanon.

She said that while she doesn’t envy the city manager’s position of overseeing budget cuts, “we have to be careful not to treat Human Services as the most expendable piece of the budget.”

“Everybody on their best day is going to have to make tough decisions,” said Hogan. “But we can’t penalize Human Services because maybe someone thinks it’s inefficent, or that we can just feed that family next year.”

The city’s Human Services offices on Hanover Street are open for walk-in hours from 9 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday, but the offices were shut down during those hours on more than one occasion this week.

No one was there to staff the office around 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and the office was closed for both hours on Wedesday. Lewis said that it is Hastings-Fox’s responsibility to keep the office open during scheduled walk-in hours.

The proposed 2013 Lebanon budget cuts $23,700 from department-wide direct assistance funding, while leaving the levels of funding to outside social services agencies at last year’s levels, which were cut by 13 percent — or $36,790 — from the previous year’s budget.

Along with the Visting Nurse Alliance, the city of Lebanon also contributes funding to the Grafton County Senior Citizens Center, Headrest, LISTEN Community Services, Hannah House, WISE, HIV-HCV Resource Center, West Central Behaviorial Health, Tri-County CAP and Good Beginnings of Sullivan County.

Emphasizing the “outcomes-based” budgeting technique based on desired results, City Manager Lewis said that should be the ultimate metric to keep in mind when looking at the city’s budget.

“The outcomes are everything here,” said Lewis. “The rest of the stuff is numbers, but the outcomes are everything.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.