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Jax Daily Record Monday, Aug. 11, 201412:00 PM EST

Council committee slashes funds for Legal Aid

by: David Chapman

Several weeks ago, Mayor Alvin Brown’s budget had a $443,000 bump for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

That was Brown’s budget. It’s now in City Council’s hands.

The match program was included in Brown’s budget and supported by council member Bill Gulliford. In it, the city would match private contributions to the nonprofit firm to help fund services to low-income people.

Last week, the Legal Aid match was one of the first cuts made by the council’s Finance Committee. Line item by line item, the nine-member group eliminated every funding increase to programs, services and departments. Instead, it rolled back expenditures to last year’s levels.

The problem? The program didn’t exist last year, meaning the $443,000 figure dropped to nothing.

The program also won’t be receiving Public Service Grant dollars, just like last year. It was the first time in several years it didn’t receive such funding.

Instead, the city’s contribution will solely come from part of a four-way split from a collected court-cost fee.

Jim Kowalski, Legal Aid’s executive director, told the group Friday he understood the action in cutting the match program.

But, last year was an outlier in terms of public service dollars not flowing to the organization. He suggested using the average the city provided though the program the past several years.

If the city only decided to give the split from the court-cost fee, it was an “inaccurate policy decision,” he said.

Friday’s discussion also brought up an old wound.

The city for several years dispersed more money than the court fee brought in. It resulted from a timing issue, with Legal Aid receiving city funds closer to the start of the fiscal year while collected fee totals weren’t known until year-end.

It’s estimated the overpayment was $180,000.

Discussions of how to recoup that money over time began last year.

Kowalski maintained the funding wasn’t an overpayment, that Legal Aid does some of the only work available to low-income people.

Council member Lori Boyer suggested the committee proceed as planned this year, then research and deal with the issue later.

Like cuts to investments Brown planned for public service grants, the Cultural Council of Greater, the Jacksonville Public Library and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office last week, any restoration of legal aid funding likely will have to come from cutting elsewhere.

That’s been the warning from committee Chair Richard Clark, who has maintained the stance of city spending aligning with revenue and not from reserves or one-time money.

According to Clark’s numbers and adhering to those principles, the more than $19 million hole the committee began with has been reduced to just over $4 million.

Budget reviews continue Thursday and Friday.

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