A major advocate for at-risk children, immigrant youth, the elderly and many others in low-income communities soon may have a chance to enter a relatively exclusive contract with Charlottesville.
The question is whether the city and Albemarle County will act on the Legal Aid Justice Center’s appeals to be removed from an agency funding review process that has recommended less funding than what the center and some other organizations have requested in recent years.
Whereas in previous years some community agencies would appeal to the city and county to meet their funding request through the area’s Agency Budget Review Team process, Legal Aid attorneys and executives are now asking that city officials give them special consideration in future budget cycles.
“What we do is critical,” said Mary Bauer, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“Funding for legal services should be a core function of the community,” she said. “Where the Public Defender’s Office represents people in criminal proceedings and is not funded in the ABRT process … we are the only organization that can stop evictions and deportations in high-stakes civil proceedings.”
Of the more than $4 million total requested through the ABRT process, only $3.1 million has been included in the city and county’s proposed budgets.
If it goes Legal Aid’s way, public funding for the nonprofit would no longer be decided as it is for approximately 60 programs for more than 40 community agencies in the area. Instead, it could receive line-item funding from the city’s general fund.
As the city and county continue to work through budget development for fiscal year 2017, attorneys from Legal Aid have been at nearly every budget meeting.
During the public comment periods of these meetings, attorneys from a few of Legal Aid’s programs have described the work they do and the clients they represent.
Many of the comments are similar — a family or individual is struggling in some way with school, work or housing. With the help of Legal Aid, they’re able to find a solution to challenging problems and avoid a life-disrupting or debilitating outcome, such as an eviction from public-assisted housing or school expulsion.
As Legal Aid is expecting a 5.1 percent decrease of its $4.7 million annual budget going into next year, it requested a total of $176,663 in public funding. Of that, about $108,000 was requested from the city.
City and county officials have recommended an allocation of approximately $30,000 total.
Legal Aid officials have said the review mechanisms of the ABRT do not weigh the value of what the agency offers.
“It’s a dysfunctional process for us,” Bauer said. “We’re losing points for things unrelated to what we’re doing. It’s a complicated process and it doesn’t do a good job of evaluating our work.”
However, she added, “this isn’t an overarching criticism of the process. It works for others.”
Legal Aid applied for funding for four programs for the coming fiscal year — Civil Advocacy, JustChildren, the Health Law Initiative and the Immigrant Youth Program.
Based on its rating system and the localities’ budget constraints, the ABRT team decided to recommend that ongoing programs that received the highest rating possible, “exemplary,” be funded by the city and county somewhere between 90 percent to 125 percent of current-year funding, a recommendation both localities attempted to heed.
None of Legal Aid’s programs was rated exemplary.
The Health Law Initiative received a “solid” rating, the highest rank any of Legal Aid’s programs received.
While the ABRT recommended that “solid” programs receive either the amount requested or as much as 125 percent of their current allocation, the city decided it would generally decrease funding by 5 percent. Albemarle officials decided to provide level funding for programs rated solid.
Programs that were rated “fair” after being rated “fair” or “weak” last year, such as the JustChildren and Civil Advocacy programs, were not recommended for funding this year.
The Immigrant Youth Project, which is meant to help young refugees attain permanent legal status and other crucial documents to seek education and work opportunities, was rated as “weak” and was not recommended for funding.
Although funding eventually was restored to Legal Aid in the last budget cycle, Susan Kruse, director of development for the organization, said she’s concerned that back-to-back years of unfavorable ratings could spell continued trouble with the ABRT process.
According to the ABRT report for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, Legal Aid’s applications for the Civil Advocacy and JustChildren programs received negative marks for lacking a strong collaborative effort with other agencies. Legal Aid also lost points for allegedly failing to provide clear program strategies and evaluations.
“This could mean defunding in the long term,” Kruse said. “We welcome the scrutiny, but there needs to be a better way.”
Bauer said those obstacles could continue to result in relentless appeals each year during budget development. She said that she’d like to avoid such a scenario.
“Having this spectacle is a bit of a distraction and imposition on the council,” Bauer said. “I think it’s ineffective and dumb.”
In addition to making public appeals at government meetings, Bauer and Kruse said they’ve held private meetings with city and county officials in an effort to gain their support.
While some county and city officials said they were on the fence on whether to have Legal Aid removed from the annual agency review process, Councilor Kathy Galvin indicated a willingness to see the center’s funding process changed.
“I do see the value of contracting with Legal Aid as opposed to having it compete annually for ABRT funds,” Galvin said. “That’s because it is a one-of-a-kind agency that provides essential legal services to our low-income community.”
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she has yet to come to a decision.
“They’re not the only ones that can argue that line-item is appropriate,” Szakos said. “It’s not unprecedented for us to do that for a new program or something that specifically addresses an issue we’ve targeted as a priority.”
“I think we do need their service, but I’m not quite there yet,” she said.
Liz Palmer, chairwoman of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said the board has asked staff to examine whether Legal Aid “fits into the ABRT process.”
“The ABRT process is well thought out and works well,” Palmer said. “I am withholding judgment until we get a report back from staff.”
Galvin said Legal Aid potentially could have some of its funding restored for the 2017 fiscal year.
“We could possibly use council discretionary funds to provide additional funds for this year, but have a contract in place for next year,” she said.
At a recent budget community forum, city officials said the council has upwards of $277,000 it can use to fund some agencies that are expecting to lose a significant amount of funding because of their ABRT review.
The council will discuss agency funding at its budget work session at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at CitySpace.