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Funding shrinks for local agencies serving the poor

The recent dissolution of Petaluma's redevelopment agency will mean steep cuts to three local agencies that serve the poor, but city officials have proposed a plan that could help them partially bridge the gap over the next few years until replacement funding can be found.

According to Petaluma Housing Director Bonnie Gaebler, there is a $2.2 million fund remaining from the city's housing authority to support the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club, the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), and Petaluma People Services Center. Under the proposed plan, which is expected to go to the city council for approval in June, all three organizations would continue to receive reduced city monies during the next four years.

"The city has a housing set-aside fund — called &‘In Lieu' funding — which comes from development projects that either agree to build affordable housing or set aside money so the city can develop housing for the poor," said Gaebler. "No formal decisions by the city have been made yet, but we believe we will be able to do this, so the three major non-profit groups we work with will not go cold-turkey over the next four years," said Gaebler.

Redevelopment agencies in California were eliminated by Governor Jerry Brown and the California Legislature last year. The California Supreme Court upheld that decision last January and by February 1, all funding ceased.

The three local agencies have traditionally received significant funding from the city's redevelopment agency, and the cuts are severe. "It was like a door being slammed shut on our funding," said Elece Hempel, executive director for Petaluma People Services Center. "The money dried up immediately."

Under the proposed plan, Gaebler said Petaluma People Services Center would receive just $100,000 per year for the next four years, which is less than a third of what it would have received under continued redevelopment funding. COTS would also get $100,000 per year, representing a similarly significant hit to its budget. The Petaluma chapter of the Boys and Girls Club would receive $240,000 per year for the next four years. This is two-thirds of the $400,000 the Boys and Girls Club was set to receive under the redevelopment budget.

The non-profit agencies of Petaluma are in the process of overhauling how they are funded, seeking to get more money from private donations, and becoming less dependent on government aid as a bad economy forces all levels of government to cut back on services.

Mike Johnson, COTS chief operating officer, says his organization, which provides housing, rehabilitation counseling and job training to the poor and homeless, said the city faces a "grim future" without the services the three non-profits provide.

"We're expecting to lose a minimum of $380,000 this year due to the elimination of redevelopment agencies. The state decided to try and balance its budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it," said Johnson, who noted that the need for COTS' services has never been greater.

"Since 2009, there has been a 40 percent increase in the numbers of homeless in Sonoma County," said Johnson.

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