Funding in doubt for social services in Portland's Parkside neighborhood

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PORTLAND — The uncertainty over federal and state funding for social service agencies has officials concerned at the People’s Regional Opportunity Program in Parkside.

Operations at PROP’s Parkside neighborhood center are funded by a federal Community Services Block Grant.

That funding is being debated by Congress, which continues to fund the federal government through continuing budget resolutions, rather than a formal appropriations bill.

Tara Kosma, PROP’s vice president of community initiatives, said one budget proposal in the U.S. Senate in early March would have eliminated the grant.

That sent administrators scrambling to come up with options for the Parkside center if funding is eliminated.

“We’re looking at everything,” she said.

Kosma said the $375,000 grant is the only funding source for the Parkside center, which has an annual operating budget of about $125,000.

Unlike other federal grants, Kosma said funding is not tied to specific contracts or uses, making it available for programming and studies, including needs assessments.

“It’s kind of the glue,” she said. “It’s flexible and it can be allocated into different places. … You can do a lot with it.”

The center at 85 Grant St. is in one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods. It is also home to a large number of immigrant, refugee and low-income families that typically avail themselves of PROP’s services.

Kosma said last year the center’s programs served 700 people, including children who had a safe place to play after school while their parents were at work.

Kosma said that several other service agencies partner with PROP in the neighborhood: Portland Adult Education, Community Counseling Center, Portland Police Department, Wayside Soup Kitchen, the Peabody Center and the Parkside Neighborhood Association.

Kosma said that without the federal grant, the future of all of Parkside’s programs would be in doubt.

“(Closing Parkside) is one of the scenarios, among others,” she said. “That would be the worst-case scenario.”

Kosma said PROP expects to hear about funding on April 8, when Congress is scheduled to vote on another continuing budget resolution, which funds the federal government in lieu of an actual operating budget.

But the threat of a federal government shutdown over competing long-term budget proposals from Republicans and Democrats has PROP officials concerned.

Kosma said PROP gets its grant funding through reimbursements. That means PROP must first spend the money, before the government pays back the organization.

If there is a shutdown of the federal government, Kosma said, there will be no reimbursement for PROP.

“It can get to this place where it becomes somewhat tenuous,” she said. “You take some risks if you’re expending money, not knowing what’s going to happen in the next quarter.”

Kosma said the block grant is also used to conduct surveys to assess community needs. Needs assessments often drive new programming, she said.

The uncertainty over funding will undoubtedly continue beyond the current year.

Kosma said cuts to the grant process are also being considered in next year’s budget, and legislators are considering making it a competitive application process.

To deal with those changes, as well as changes in the state’s social services funding, PROP is considering merging with South Portland-based Youth Alternatives Ingraham.

In a joint statement about the potential merger, the groups said there was no timetable for reaching a decision. 

Meanwhile, PROP is taking its Parkside services day-by-day.

“It’s so hard to tell” what will happen, Kosma said. “We don’t know. We just don’t know.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @randybillings.

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