State Faces $27 Million Shortfall in Programs for Poor; Animal Group Splits Over Image, Interests; Richmond Stars Unite for Planet; Men and Women Get Closer at UR 

Street Talk

State Faces $27 Million Shortfall in Programs for Poor

Next year, the state will run out of money to fund $27 million worth of social programs, a Style Weekly investigation reveals.

The impending shortfall means cuts are likely in a range of state programs for the poor — including housing, foster care, food banks and domestic-violence services.

That came as news to some in the General Assembly. "I've never heard anything about this," says state Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, the chairman of the Senate's Health and Human Resources subcommittee who is very familiar with TANF funding. "We have always operated under the impression that there are substantial reserves in that fund."

"I'm surprised," echoes state Sen. Benjamin Lambert III, D-Richmond, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. "We're probably going to have to cut something to balance it off."

Trying to do so will give the new governor and the General Assembly a tricky task next year: Either figure out where that $27 million will come from in a time when the economy is slowing and the country is at war, or figure out where to cut $27 million from the state budget.

Essentially, the state's dilemma is a result of the fact that the state has been spending more from a federal grant than it has been receiving.

Under the Temporary Aid for Needy Families block grant — or TANF, pronounced "TAN-if" — the federal government gives the state about $158.3 million a year to help people get off welfare. The block grant began in 1997; it will be reviewed by Congress and renewed in some form in 2003.

But in recent years, the state has been paying for about $185 million in social programs from that fund — about $27 million more than it's getting.

This has been possible because in the early years, the state didn't spend all the $158.3 million it got annually in TANF funds, and was allowed to keep what was left. As long as the money was being spent on welfare reform-related programs for the poor, the state could use it or roll it over to the next year's budget. In 1999, the state's balance of unspent TANF funds was $68.7 million.

But that surplus is now gone — too many governmental bodies wanted pieces of it.

For example, the state Department of Social Services — headed by appointees of Gov. Jim Gilmore — has quietly shifted $1.1 million in costs from the state's general fund to the TANF fund. (Gilmore had asked that $10 million be shifted to TANF funding, but that didn't pass muster with the General Assembly.)

In addition, in 2000, the General Assembly added a series of programs for the poor — adding up to about $47 million — to the list of those that would be funded by the TANF grant.

As a result, the state's TANF surplus will run out next year, leaving $27 million in social programs unfunded, says David Mitchell, the controller for the state Department of Social Services.

"It's just like your checkbook at home," Mitchell says. "One has to realize that if you're only getting $158 million and you're spending $185 million, at some point you're going to run out of money."

The programs in question run the gamut, from multimillion-dollar grants for housing programs to a $100,000-a-year program to send the children of single welfare mothers to St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville.

But cutting any of the services will have real-world effects. For example, the Central Virginia Foodbank uses $35,700 a year in TANF funds to pay for a hot-meal program for poor children in South Richmond.

"If that were gone," says Fay Lohr, the food bank's executive director, "there would be 200 students who need a hot meal every day who won't get one." — Greg Weatherford

Animal Group Splits Over Image, Interests

The local arm of Save Our Shelter, an animal advocacy organization, has split over concerns about the group's image and aggressively expanding role.

"As a group, 14 adoption and kennel volunteers made a decision to disassociate with S.O.S. to put an end to the muckraking going on," says Chuck Marchant. Those members have now formed a separate group called Friends United with the Richmond Shelter, or FURS.

S.O.S. began in 1996 as a grassroots effort by local volunteers to correct abuses at the Richmond city pound. Since then, its members have swelled into the thousands and its mission of saving and placing pound animals has grown statewide. S.O.S. has lobbied for new tougher animal-related legislation and stiffer enforcement of current laws.

But in the course of vying for community support and criticizing the way some humane organizations — specifically the Richmond SPCA — work, S.O.S. has had its share of skeptics.

Marchant, who had been a kennel volunteer with S.O.S. for 18 months, says a coalition within the group sent a letter two weeks ago to Jeanne Bridgforth, executive director and founding member of S.O.S., informing her of their decision to leave.

"It's been an ongoing unholy war," Marchant says of the sometimes angry exchanges between S.O.S. and the Richmond SPCA — including many letters to the editor in Style. Marchant says that must stop.

"FURS is being started to let people know S.O.S., from an adoption side, has no manpower," he says. "[Bridgforth] does not represent us."

Marchant says the 14 members who left comprise nearly all the group's adoption and kennel volunteers.

Though Marchant says S.O.S. was "blindsided" by the split, Bridgforth says her group had already reorganized in anticipation of such a move.

"It's a natural thing," she says, in the evolution of humane nonprofits. "Doing rescue and adoption is an administrative nightmare," Bridgforth contends, and ultimately takes up time that could be spent "working on advocacy and legislative issues."

Bridgforth stops short of saying she's happy about the split or about the fact that FURS plans to handle the rescues and adoptions that once were a force of S.O.S. But she insists it's the result of the organization having worked well.

S.O.S., she notes, has started 10 affiliates throughout southwest Virginia and introduced numerous advocacy programs such as its Court Watch and Pen Pal initiatives. Also, a new Companions in Arms initiative provides care for pets of people called to serve in the military.

Meanwhile, Marchant says FURS will partner with "any group that walks our way."

Specifically, it hopes to alleviate the overload of animals at the Richmond Animal Shelter. FURS is equipped to keep about 60 animals at a time at Commonwealth Kennels in Glen Allen. It pledges to find homes for them all. "I'm really excited about something positive," says Marchant. "It's a whole new ballgame." — Brandon Walters

Richmond Stars Unite for Planet

Girl Scouts have cornered the market on cookies. The Salvation Army commands the bellringers. And now, the Daily Planet's got the groove.

The Grace Street homeless shelter and service provider hopes to raise funds with a new CD featuring local artists.

The Daily Planet didn't want to just ask Richmonders "Can we have some money?" this year, says development director Susan Sekerke — especially since many gave so much for Sept. 11 disaster relief. Instead, she thought the Daily Planet's efforts would be more successful "if we can give something in order to get."

At first Sekerke hoped to organize a benefit concert, but it didn't work out. So the musicians she had contacted asked her if she'd thought about a compilation CD instead.

That was in August. By the end of October, Sekerke and partner Steve Douglas, manager of local label Planetary Records, had assembled 16 songs, ranging from rockabilly to jazz to country. All they now need is a title.

Richmond artists who contributed include Carbon Leaf, Burnt Taters, Susan Greenbaum, Robbin Thompson and Page Wilson. "To me, the beauty in it is each of these artists has its own crowd," says Douglas — so a Taters fan who picks up the album, for instance, may discover more area bands that appeal.

One band on the CD, Sheryl Warner and the Homewreckers, has yet to release its first album, Douglas says. Another, the Good Humor Band, has been around for more than 20 years and now reunites only rarely.

The CD will begin appearing in Plan 9 record stores in early December, Sekerke says, followed by a release party at the Canal Club on Dec. 21. The price of the CD is $10.99 — $10 of which goes directly to the Daily Planet.

Sekerke says she's hoping to raise $20,000 total, from sales and the release party.

And although the alignment of the Planetary label and the Daily Planet happened by chance, Sekerke's hoping to make the most of it. "I'm going to contact the Planet radio station [96.5 FM] to see if they want to do anything." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Men and Women Get Closer at UR

At last, undergrads at the University of Richmond won't necessarily have to cross campus to visit members of the opposite sex.

In a move that appears to thrill students, administrators and even some alumni, University of Richmond's Board of Trustees recently agreed to allow single-sex dorms on both sides of campus.

"Many of us thought if we didn't do something, [the issue] could ultimately have brought down the entire coordinate system," says Leonard Goldberg, vice president for student affairs at University of Richmond.

The so-called coordinate system places students in two separate schools: an academic school, which is co-ed, and a residential college, which is single-sex.

Some students and many alumni had feared that shuffling the dorms could weaken UR's separate-but-equal premise: that men's and women's programs to develop students' leadership skills and personal life work best when they are distinct.

But for years, Goldberg explains, students have complained that friendships between men and women aren't forged easily because their dorms are too far apart. And that's a big deal when 92 percent of the student body lives on campus.

But changing the situation had never been easy.

Tim Sullivan, president of Richmond College Student Government Association (on the men's side of campus), says fear of losing the best students to other colleges is what finally brought the issue to the fore.

"Many, many, many, many of the best students surveyed about where they'd go to college cited [that] separate housing wasn't appealing to them," says Sullivan. And, he says, when he became president of the men's student government, the first thing the students in his coed classes asked was to "please put us together."

But there was the question of politics. "Students were always told that there'd be an uprising by alumni and funding would disappear," he says.

So why isn't this the case now? "As much as [alumni] wanted to hold onto the past they realized it was time," Sullivan says. "It gets rid of the only negative thing about the coordinate system and opens the door to strengthen and highlight programming."

Plus, he adds, dorm proximity means men and women will be able to develop a "closeness that was never there before." — B.W.


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