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Travis County leaders hope to spread social service dollars across region

Thursday, April 13, 2017 by Jack Craver

As rising housing prices force low-income people to flee the urban core in search of cheaper living, Travis County leaders worry about the county’s ability to provide services to the area’s neediest residents in an era of steep federal and state budget cuts.

While a report presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday noted that poverty had declined in the county from 18 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2015, commissioners were reluctant to applaud the news, uncertain whether the trend was evidence that people were climbing out of poverty or that the poor were simply moving elsewhere.

“The mayor says we’re improving our poverty numbers every year,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea, “but not because we’re doing better (at reducing poverty).”

Health and Human Services executive Sherri Fleming echoed those concerns, saying that the department has sought to contract with nonprofit agencies that demonstrate an ability to serve people who live outside of the city. That has been a key factor in the department’s competitive bidding process.

Besides having on facilities in the surrounding area, agencies might offer transportation or extended hours that make it easier to serve those who live far away, explained Courtney Lucas, a senior planner in the Research & Planning Division of Health and Human Services who helped author the report, in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

The most recent figures available, from 2013, found that 30 percent of those receiving contracted services through Health and Human Services lived in zip codes that included a substantial amount of unincorporated area. That was up from only nine percent in 2010.

The shift could be evidence of the county’s success in expanding its reach, but officials hesitate to draw such optimistic conclusions, saying it could also demonstrate the extent to which those who need services are moving to Pflugerville, Manor, Del Valle and other communities surrounding Austin.

“We believed that people were moving out of the city, into more affordable areas,” Christy Moffett, a planner who oversees the Community Development Block Grant program, told the Monitor. “Part of that number speaks to that.”

With the state legislature poised to approve a budget with steep cuts to social programs and President Donald Trump calling for a massive reduction in federal funding for low-income services, the county is under even more pressure to make its limited dollars as effective as possible.

The president’s budget, for instance, would scrap the Community Development Block Grant program, from which Travis County receives a little more than $1 million a year. Some of that money, explained Moffett, helps pay for the county to have a social worker at all seven of its community centers, with the intent to “serve people who are really geographically isolated.”

Another likely target is the roughly $3 million the county receives to assist low-income residents with energy costs, including through utility discounts and programs that help people make their homes more energy-efficient. About $500,000 comes directly through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate entirely. The rest comes from the state-administered Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program, but that is also largely funded by Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“Those (programs) are extremely important to the resilience of our folks who are most deeply in need,” said County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in an interview.

Fleming also noted that the president has proposed eliminating funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps, the service program that provides more than 500 staff to local schools, nonprofits and other entities providing services in the Austin area.

Meg Poag, executive director of the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, which employs AmeriCorps members, said that she and other service providers are teaming up to defend the program.

“We’re being pretty engaged in advocacy at the federal level,” she said. “It’s not looking great.”

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