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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Aug. 26, 201412:00 PM EST

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid facing cutbacks, furloughs

by: David Chapman

Fewer people, fewer days open.

That’s the predicament Jacksonville Area Legal Aid finds itself. How it’s come to this has built over time.

Gov. Rick Scott in June rejected $2 million for legal aid services statewide. The Florida Bar Foundation, a main funding source in years past, hasn’t been replenished because the Interest on Trust Accounts program has been hampered by the down economy of the past several years.

The latest blow came this month at the local level after the City Council Finance Committee cut a new $443,000 funding match from this year’s budget. It wasn’t anything Legal Aid did or didn’t do — the committee’s stance has been steadfast throughout August in curbing new spending.

With the continued setbacks, Legal Aid’s board unanimously acted Friday to ensure the legal service provider for low-income people could make it to 2016.

The results: six people laid off and staff furloughs that will keep the Jacksonville office closed Fridays through December 2015. The board also approved suspending retirement matching funds.

Legal Aid Executive Director Jim Kowalski said the math added up. City Council won’t approve a budget until at least the middle of September, but making tough decisions now means saving enough money to ensure making it to 2016. Even if that means the organization is on “life support,” as he describes it.

“There is no indication of a future time when City Council will put the money back,” Kowalski said of the committee’s Aug. 7 cut. “We had to figure it out … we had to make decisions.”

Legal Aid’s board asked him to begin a review process after that vote.

Mayor Alvin Brown’s budget included the $443,000, which is a match to what Legal Aid was able to privately raise for the year. Council member Bill Gulliford has been a key supporter in the new initiative, but said the program and others have fallen victim to the reality of the difficult budget times.

“I want to help them very much,” Gulliford said, “but I can’t be a hypocrite. If others are sacrificing their projects, I can’t play it selfishly.”

Council member Warren Jones also has been a key supporter of the organization over the years. He said with the economic recovery still taking place, people who need Legal Aid’s services the most won’t have them at this pace.

“We have to find a way to provide assistance,” Jones said.

Jones said he is considering reintroducing a budget amendment for $200,000 out of a foreclosure registry fund he ended up pulling last year during the review. He has been waiting on a legal opinion on the matter, but said with the timing dire he’d “rather cross that bridge when we get there.”

Gulliford also has an idea for a funding source he says is “viable and permanent” coming from a source that has a “good bit of money.” He said he would be looking into the possibility soon, but declined to provide details on the source.

Until some source is found, Kowalski said he will manage the personnel matters internally while trying to keep morale up.

“Our work continues for the city,” he said.

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