Needy families lose critical Legal Help through Budget Cuts
December, 2011: Recently passed legislation to fund federal agencies for 2012 drastically reduces funds to help low-income persons who face domestic violence, the loss of their housing, and loss of income.
Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO) helps these persons through 32 counties in western Ohio. LAWO and its partner law firm, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), are law firms that provide free comprehensive legal services to low-income persons. Through their efforts, domestic violence clients secure protection orders, families maintain their homes against the threat of eviction, and households secure income through unemployment compensation and government assistance available during difficult financial times.
The legislation that US Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law combines funding for several agencies into an omnibus appropriations bill. The bill reduces funding for the Legal Services Corporation – which funds legal aid programs throughout the country – by over $56 million dollars.
LAWO and its clients will be hard hit by this major reduction in funding. A $56 million cut in LSC funding reduces LSC’s budget to its 2007 level and follows a 4 percent budget cut LSC received in 2011.
“The cuts will equate to a 15 percent reduction in funding for our services, or approximately $550,000 from what LAWO received in 2010,” said Kevin Mulder. “This is yet another blow to our 2012 budget and our ability to serve clients facing serious legal issues.”
LAWO and ABLE have been struggling to maintain their services to clients in the wake of other cuts. Over the last four years, the funding available to the firms from their other major funding source – The Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation – has decreased from $7.7 million in 2007 to a projected $3.5 million in 2012.
“Up until now we’ve been able to do things to absorb the reductions in funding without significant reductions in staff, allowing us to maintain client services,” Mulder remarked. The firms have suspended contributions to the employee retirement program, suspended across-the-board salary increases, not replaced vacant staff, and asked employees to pick up more of their healthcare benefits.
To address budget shortfalls for 2011, ABLE and LAWO closed their 10 offices on Monday, November 14, 2011 and on Wednesday, November 23, 2011. “These closures require our employees to take mandatory unpaid furloughs on these two days,” says Joseph Tafelski, executive director of ABLE.
In addition, the legal aid staffs are asked to each take three additional unpaid furlough days through the remainder of 2011. “We truly regret any inconvenience these closures may cause our clients,” says Tafelski. “Our approach is to minimize the impact on clients and services as much as possible, while also accommodating our staff to the best of our ability.”
Unfortunately, the cuts will not end with furlough days. The two firms have reached the point where cutting staff is inevitable. “We have already seen reductions in staff by not filling vacant positions; however, we are now at a point where we will be laying off individuals – including our attorney staff,” says Tafelski. With less staff, it will be harder to provide the level of services communities have been used to receiving.
“We are aggressively looking for other funding to support our programs,” added Mulder. “Our operations will be leaner, but we will continue to help people get the justice they deserve.”