Head Start recovers, but housing programs not so lucky in St. Lawrence County
Saturday, April 5, 2014 - 8:34 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

St. Lawrence County’s Head Start programs have recovered financially from last year’s federal budget sequester, but local housing programs so far have not.

The county’s Community Development Program, which administers several income-eligible programs such as Head Start and the Housing Choice Voucher Program, lost some funds and housing vouchers as a result of the sequester, which was an attempt by Congress, approved in 2011, to impose relatively arbitrary spending limits in the future if specific and targeted cuts to spending were not agreed to and passed by the legislators.

The sequester went into effect 13 months ago, and resulted in the loss of housing vouchers for 51 families in St. Lawrence County and in cuts money form Head Start last year, according to St. Lawrence County Community Development Program Executive Director Norma Cary.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, Cary explained, gives income-eligible families help with rent. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD).

St. Lawrence County’s program had been funded for 660 vouchers for tenant-based housing, where renters find housing on their own, and project-based housing, such as Evergreen Park on Racquette Road in Potsdam.

But under the sequester, the program lost 51 of those vouchers under a new rule. “Some families left the area, maybe they didn’t comply with rules and their vouchers were revoked, some people died,” Cary said. But regardless of the reason, HUD said those vouchers were gone, not to be transferred as they has been able to do in the past.

“So those vouchers were lost – not forever, but we don’t know when they will be reinstated,” she said. And with now 609 vouchers and a waiting list of eligible families at 1,200, “I could fill 51 in a heartbeat,” Cary said, “but if they’re vacated, I can’t fill them.”

The Head Start program in St. Lawrence County was cut by about five percent last year. That amounted to $148,000 lost to the program.

It meant the loss of several days when centers were closed and some personnel were temporarily laid off.

“We had to cut back on a couple days of programming, and we had to lay some people off temporarily around the holidays, which we certainly hated to do.”

Cary said Head Start, a “school readiness” program of pre-school instruction for children three to five years old from economically disadvantaged families, was the “first to be cut and the first to be restored.”

The restoration this year was a return to normal funding, not giving them the money that was lost during the period.

Funding for the eight Neighborhood Centers in St. Lawrence County also suffered a bit of a hit due to the sequester, “but we were able to manage,” Cary said, because they were able to compensate with money from other sources. The Neighborhood Centers run food pantries and handle services such as emergency heating allowances “which in the cold weather makes them very busy.”

And Cary says there was a little less money for house weatherization this year “because the state got fewer dollars to distribute” from the federal government.

“Head Start has been flat-funded for a number of years. We often get inflation-based boosts with a small COLA (cost of living adjustment) but considering the expenses of doing business, we can’t expand these services.

“It’s been up and down,” Cary said. “With governments trying to balance their budgets, we’re always fighting for the dollars we do get.