Funds Are Drying Up • As more people are needing help
December 29, 2008
Connecticut's legal-aid lawyers, defenders of the poor, need a champion of their own now — as do so many agencies helping those who are down on their luck.
Legal aid's chief source of funding is drying up. The three biggest providers are talking about letting go up to one-third of their 150 staff members if they can't find a way to cover their deficits by midsummer.
The staff at one of them, Connecticut Legal Services, is taking a 20 percent pay cut for 2009 to try to save jobs; their managers are taking cuts of up to 35 percent.
The funding cuts come at the worst time, as the bad economy brings in people desperate to keep their homes, get paid for their work, and get the Medicaid and other benefits they're entitled to.
For example, legal-aid agencies serving Greater Hartford and New Haven recently took up the cases of tenants being evicted from buildings in foreclosure even though the tenants were current on their rent — and even though U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd had insisted on language protecting renters in good standing in the $700 billion bank bailout bill. Thanks to the legal-aid attorneys, mortgage giant Fannie Mae changed its eviction policy and let the good tenants stay.
Legal aid is funded in large part in Connecticut by interest on money held in escrow for people buying homes. Plunges in home sales and interest rates have cut those funds for the three biggest agencies from $21 million in 2007 to an estimated $4 million in 2009. That's the lowest since 1995; adjusted for inflation, the agencies' funding has never been this low.
How to keep their doors open? The state, which contributes a modest amount to the legal-aid budget, is unlikely to ride to the rescue because it is not in great shape itself: It faces a $3 billion budget deficit next fiscal year.
So the legal-services agencies, like so many other worthy services, will have to cast wide their fundraising nets to include foundations and the federal government, among others. Though recessions are not the best times to raise taxes, the legislature might consider temporary fees to help out, such as boosting the yearly lawyer occupation tax of $450.
Connecticut's legal community already does a lot to help. Volunteers take 1,000 legal-aid cases a year for free. But they can't handle the 15,000 cases that legal-aid agencies do. Nor do volunteers have the deep experience in, for example, Medicaid issues, that legal-aid lawyers have.
Legal-aid lawyers have done their part by sacrificing a large chunk of their modest salaries to keep serving the poor. But that won't be enough to get them through 2009. Like their clients, they'll need help.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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