COLUMBIA — Shawn Pruitt is a big guy. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 35 years old, he's an imposing figure in the cramped and crowded waiting room of the Voluntary Action Center.
Up until January, Pruitt had been working at Dana Holding Corp., where he assembled rear axles for trucks and SUVs. Before that, he operated a forklift as a material handler for Gates Rubber. Since losing his job at Dana, he's been working at KFC.
"I'm trying to look for work, but they say it's best to have a job while you look for a job," Pruitt said.
Pruitt had come to the Voluntary Action Center on Monday to get bus passes that he uses to get to work at KFC, where he works six days a week in order to accumulate full-time hours. Free and discounted bus passes are one of many services the Voluntary Action Center provides. It also helps clients connect with other service groups and pay for items such as food, clothing, prescription medications and school supplies.
In the past year, the Voluntary Action Center has seen a dramatic increase in people needing services, many for the first time.
"We have families lined up outside our door in the morning, and we're busy all day long," Executive Director Cindy Mustard said. Because the VAC coordinates services among many local organizations, it is often a point of entry for people seeking help for the first time. From January to June, the VAC saw a 28.7 percent increase in new households served over the same period for 2008. They're not alone.
"All of these agencies are seeing an increase in people in need of services," Mustard said.
In a tough economic climate, increased need does not equal increased funding. For organizations in Columbia, it could mean the opposite.
Facing a projected 2.9 percent drop in revenue, City Manager Bill Watkins is seeking $2 million in savings for the 2010 city budget. The proposed total budget for 2010 is about $403 million, down from about $415 million in 2009. Watkins has requested cuts in spending across most city departments, including funding for social services. For 2009, the city of Columbia allocated a total $903,743 to various social service groups.
It is the job of the Boone County Community Services Advisory Commission to review funding applications and recommend how much of that funding each organization should get. This year, Watkins asked that the commission make three sets of recommendations, one each based on level funding, a 2.5 percent cut or a 5 percent cut. A 5 percent cut would reduce the social services budget to $858,556.
Thirty-one agencies submitted applications for a total of 48 separate programs; the commission recommended funding for 43, meaning some will get no money at all. Others will see either the same amount of money or less than in 2009.
City government isn't the only source of revenue for most organizations. But the city isn't the only one cutting back.
Timothy Rich, interim executive director of the Heart of Missouri United Way, said it has had to cut its available funding 2.5 percent across the board for 2010. The United Way works with the city and Boone County to coordinate funding for service organizations.
And as it prepares to cut funding, the United Way has seen an increase in need, Rich said.
Rich accounts for the increase by pointing out the tough economic realities affecting everyone. "We're seeing folks coming in for basic needs service that have never needed it before," Rich said.
Rich said that funding decisions have been tough but that community needs shouldn't be ignored. "Our position is that because we have to cut our budget 2.5 percent, now is not the time for the city to cut funding," Rich said.
Rich isn't the only one who questions whether the city should be cutting social services. Marcia Walker, executive director for Meals on Wheels of Columbia, was one of several advocates who spoke in favor of level funding at a public hearing before the City Council on Aug. 17.
"I sat there listening to the City Council and thought, 'You're spending half a million on sidewalks, but you're going to decrease funding for services?'" Walker said.
Walker said that even level funding would be a cut. "Every year our food costs go up, our insurance costs go up, everything goes up," she said.
Meals on Wheels served 319 people a total of 44,500 meals in 2008. Depending on how the council acts on the advisory commission's recommendations, her organization could see anywhere from level funding to a $5,000 decrease. Walker said that a $5,000 cut would eliminate 1,500 meals.
In recent history, the city has traditionally increased its social services funding by 1 percent to 3 percent each year. For those organizations that depend on city money, cuts of any kind are unprecedented.
"I've been the executive director of Meals on Wheels for 15 years, and I have never seen a decrease in funding from the city and United Way," Walker said. "I've seen level funding, but never a decrease."
For many agencies, resources are stretched thin. Mustard, of the Voluntary Action Center, said her organization can only afford to employ two social service specialists. She hopes they won't have to cut back on employees when there is so much more work to be done.
"This is more of a burden on agencies, because they have to spend additional time fundraising and applying for grants while also providing services," Mustard said.
Eddie Willis, 57, is seeking help from the Voluntary Action Center for the first time. A diabetic, he came to the center Monday to get help paying for blood test strips. He's been on Medicaid for the past few years, but his failing health has prevented him from working recently. Willis said he was an addict for 40 years but has been clean for five. As for his health, "I did it to myself," he said. "Too much bad living."
Willis recently had to stop working at the Phoenix House, where he was a mental health advocate trying to help others escape addiction. But it became too difficult to go to work with the heart monitor and oxygen he often has to cart with him. He said he recognizes the importance of groups such as the Voluntary Action Center.
"This day and age, people need a place to come to," Willis said.
Peggy Kirkpatrick is executive director of the Central Missouri Food Bank, which depends on public and private funding.
"Government and city funding is only a small part of what we do," Kirkpatrick said. "We view government as a partner."
She recognizes the city faces tough financial decisions. "It's an extremely difficult decision for everyone involved, (but) I think people are more important than a park," she said.
Office of Community Services manager Steve Hollis said cuts in social service funding are in line with cuts in other city departments.
"I don't think we're being asked to do anything anybody else hasn't been asked to do," Hollis said. Despite the cuts, he thinks Columbia has demonstrated a strong commitment to social services. By supporting them, he said, the city tries to alleviate the effects of poverty and hunger, which can influence the entire community.
"It's not charitable giving. It's an investment," he said, noting that Columbia's arrangement is rare among cities of similar size. "Very few cities use general revenue funds for social services."
Hollis echoed a point upon which everyone in the service community seems to agree. "It's a tough time for the city; it's a tough time for the agencies," he said. "They're seeing a lot of people they've never seen before."
For Shawn Pruitt, relief can't come soon enough. He said that despite his experience in skilled factory work, there are a lot more people competing for the same jobs.
"Employers have choices now," Pruitt said. "They can hire someone with 10 years of experience over someone who may only have one or two."
Although cuts have been recommended, the final budget has not yet been approved. The City Council will hold budget hearings on Sept. 8 and Sept. 21, when it is scheduled to vote on a final spending plan.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the process has "not been fun for anybody." But he's optimistic the council will be able to avoid the worst-case scenario of a 5 percent cut. He said the council could raise fees in other departments or use money from its discretionary budget. Now is the time, he said, for the council to consider budget amendments.
"In a sense it's late in the process, but it's also early in the process," Skala said.