Thursday, July 3, 2008

Proposed California budget cuts affecting most vulnerable

In the end, Nick Robinson just couldn't afford the Bay Area. And with pending state budget cuts threatening the foster care counselor's programs and salary, he decided to pack his belongings and leave Walnut Creek for Boston.

"There's no way anyone can manage on this type of salary," the 23-year-old said from his apartment, days before he left. Robinson started at $9.35 an hour and received 20-cent-a-year cost of living increases working at Concord's Youth Homes Inc., an emergency shelter for homeless youths.

"These kids need many things, including people who will be there for them," said Robinson, who landed his counseling job after spending years in the county's foster care system battling his own drug addiction.

Supporting funds are falling away like leaves in autumn. After identifying a $17.2 billion shortfall in May, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed cutting $9 billion statewide, resulting in a 10 percent reduction for Contra Costa's foster care system. He plans to fill the $8 billion gap with new revenue, mostly by borrowing against lottery revenue. The proposed cuts could mean a loss of $262 million annually in direct state and federal assistance to Contra Costa, according to a Health Access California. The cuts would affect the county's most vulnerable residents who saw almost $52 million sliced from the budget earlier this year.

That initial cut chopped clothing allowances for Contra Costa foster youths. The program Advertisementhad provided between $125 to $225 annually for foster youths to buy clothes.

"As a counselor, it's really heartbreaking to see these kids get petty, little clothing allowances," Robinson said. "We wind up taking them to thrift stores."

Earlier cuts have limited living spaces for foster youths. The county is short of facilities that take in youngsters with severe mental illness, Robinson said.

"So many have already shut down because they can't afford it," Robinson said.

Payments to families and group homes would be reduced from $530 a month to $477 a month, according to Health Access.

Amy Fedele is just hoping to keep her ailing grandmother out of a nursing home. Her 76-year-old grandmother, Margaret Fedele, diagnosed with Lewy body disease in 2006, needs round-the-clock care.

Shortly after the diagnosis — a disease that can lead to dementia — Fedele was briefly in a nursing home.

"She was going downhill. Every day she was in there, she said, 'I want out. I want to go home,'" Amy said. "(If she returns) she's going to pass away earlier than expected."

Amy, her aunt and in-home support services caregivers have enabled the family to keep Margaret out of nursing homes.

However, the state plans to take $22 million from Contra Costa's in-home support services, affecting 1,500 disabled and senior residents. The hourly wages of more than 6,500 caregivers would fall from $12 to $8.60 an hour, according to Health Access.

Amy already quit one of her three jobs to spend nights with her grandmother. After a doctor's visit Tuesday, Margaret was sent to the emergency room.

Although health care faces sizable cuts, education was not spared.

Concord resident Erin Dillon, 16, learned a few weeks ago that her Advanced Placement biology class at Ygnacio Valley High School had been canceled due to low enrollment. A lack of funding — $70 million cut from Contra Costa school budgets — has districts requiring larger class sizes.

"I was really emotional," said Erin, a straight-A student who just finished her sophomore year. She wants to attend Stanford University and become a marine biologist researching intertidal regions. "I really need this class to go to college and be competitive."

Her father, Mark Dillon, has written to the district and presented the problem to the school board.

"I see this as a case of No Child Getting Ahead," Dillon said, riffing off the federal No Child Left Behind program. "We have a very driven student ... and she's frustrated."

And then there's Marla Campos, a single Antioch mother who has been searching for child care assistance for her children, 5 and 7.

For years, Campos worked at a bank, waking up at 4:30 a.m., taking the children to day care and returning to pick them up around 6:15 p.m. Of the $2,200 a month she took home, she paid more than $1,000 in child care. She waited on a subsidized child care list, along with almost 5,000 other parents.

"I chose to work and didn't want to be on welfare, so they couldn't help me," she said.

On May 30, as a result of the mortgage crisis, Campos was laid off by her bank. Now, she lives off disability payments and has gone back to school in hopes of entering the medical administration field.

Now that she lost her job, she has been fast-tracked to the front of the subsidized child care line.

"That's the way it works. I don't want to use a swear word, but that's how it goes," she said.

However, with the state potentially cutting $5 million from Contra Costa's affordable preschool and child care, Campos isn't holding her breath.

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