FARMINGTON — Farmington's social services organizations could face increasingly difficult times as the economy continues to stagnate.
Faced with pending cuts to state and federal funding, the agencies — the ones that shelter the homeless, care for abused children and provide addiction treatment — are increasingly looking to local government for assistance.
City officials say preserving funding is high on their list of priorities. A proposed $3 million budget reduction, coupled with falling tax revenue, could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.
"We've already faced some funding cuts," said Jonna Sharpe, executive director of People Assisting The Homeless in Farmington. "We lost $34,000 in United Way funding."
Sharpe underscored the vital role that social services organizations, such as PATH, play in Farmington and surrounding communities.
"We address social problems," she said. "Social problems are the community's problems."
Cuts to those programs could be devastating, she said. Farmington's PATH shelter has had to turn away people because all the beds are filled.
"I'm stretched to the very max," Sharpe said. "It's very stressful to keep turning people away without having a place to send them to. I know (the city's) trying to trim the budget, but the pennies we get are significant. I know these things do add up."
The city's funding allocation to PATH goes primarily toward paying utilities at its two Farmington facilities, she said. This fiscal year, the city provided $15,000 to PATH. Utilities cost around $25,000 per year.
"I encourage (council) to look outside the box," Sharpe said. "We find so many ways to trim our budget. City council, they have such a limited amount of time to dedicate on these issues. I do understand that they have limited information as well."
Sharpe recommended that the city set up a think tank or an advisory board to focus on social services issues in the community.
"Right now, I feel like (the city is) getting an extraordinarily good value on the dollars they're giving to social services," said Erin Hourihan, executive director of Childhaven in a phone interview May 14. "It's very important that we as a society invest in these services."
Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts agreed that city funding plays a vital role in social services organizations.
"I think the city has evolved in that it took on a funding role in social services," he said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "The community supports that role for city government. When you have that history of funding, it's very hard to reduce it."
City council has indicated informally that it would like to continue funding social services organizations.
According to information provided by City Manager Rob Mayes at a recent city budget planning session, the city gave $191,000 in funding to social service organizations, including Childhaven, PATH, the Family Crisis Center and Totah Behavioral Health Authority in fiscal year 2013.
A current funding proposal would reduce funding to $139,750 for fiscal year 2014, which begins in July. That would amount to a nearly 27 percent decrease in funding.
While the city is not in a financial position to increase funding, it could keep funding at its current level, Roberts said.
"More and more of the responsibility in going to fall at the local level," Roberts said.
For Councilman Jason Sandel, the primary issue lies in efficient use of funds.
"I think, as it relates to the role of the city, it's a fairly nebulous process and one that I've wanted to firm up," Sandel said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "In general, about social services, the city expends a huge amount of money addressing homelessness and the street inebriate problem. It's time to look at the total money spent, to get all those groups together."
Although social services organizations mean well, many may be duplicating services, he said.
"We don't have a comprehensive program at this point, and while the organizations are very well intentioned, we're seeing repeat offenders in our treatment facility," Sandel said. "The solutions we came up with in the '90s and the 2000s are not the solutions for today. We ought to sit down and develop a comprehensive solution. It's a complicated issue, and one that deserves our attention and focus."
Councilwoman Mary Fischer said that the short-term issue of social services funding is a simple decision.
"I think it's incumbent upon the city to not spend funds foolishly," she said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "With these social service agencies, they are providing essential services. If we look at it from a purely cost-benefit ration, we are getting a good return on our investment. These social service agencies have proven track records with us. They are losing federal and state funding. Certainly, we can't be all things to all people, but I'm comfortable in the funding levels that we have proposed — to give full funding."
If the city fails to provide funding to organizations that address issues such as addiction and homelessness in their infancy, the community could end up paying later through increased incarceration rates, Fischer said.
"We might as well be a little more proactive than reactive," she said. "Far be it from me to take funding from children that are homeless and people in need. We will find the money."
Greg Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4606. Follow him on Twitter @GYeeDT