Archive for Sunday, July 31, 1994


July 31, 1994


No new taxes remains the budget battle call, and new social service agencies with pressing needs hear it loud and clear.

After Ben extinguished his generic-brand cigarette, he used a bandless watch to occupy his hands, twirling it around and around.

The cigarette smoke disappeared quickly into a whirring air cleaner propped on a wooden chair. Except for the machine, the room looked like a living room in any house: bay window, blinds half-drawn, oriental rug, sofas worn at the edges, a lounge chair that wobbled.

Unlike most houses, the place called Acceptance House keeps its doors open to strangers 24 hours a day -- strangers who, like Ben, suffer from mental illness.

"It's like a giant inertia," Ben said, describing his depression, sitting opposite the wobbly chair, knees bobbing up and down, hands twirling. Depression has prevented him from holding a steady job for most of his 33 years.

"I just can't make myself do anything," he said.

His drive has improved in recent months; he's even taking a course in English literature at Kansas University. Living in the house at 407 Maine has helped him focus, he said.

"It's a lot better than being out in the street," he said. "I'd probably just have a sheet draped in the bushes somewhere."

When the administrator of Project Acceptance went to the county courthouse and asked Douglas County commissioners for funding, Ben was not present. What commissioners saw before them was the bottom line. They denied the request.

The reason is simple. The request is a new one. City and county commissioners said funding new requests is unlikely when projects like a jail, a school and parks loom on the tax horizon.

The two commissions rejected all of the three new health program requests, as well as cut back requests from many agencies already funded.

Health-related services, a topic of ever-increasing urgency to Americans, will get 4 percent of the combined city and county budgets in 1995.

Nancy Wilson, administrative director for Project Acceptance, told commissioners that a state grant had fallen through. The house might have to close in 1995, she said, without the grant or a county subsidy. Rent is $1,100 a month.

The agency serves 87 adults a month on a drop-in basis. Two clients -- Ben for one -- live there, referred by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

A loss of state grants is not a new song. City Commissioner Bob Schulte raises an eyebrow whenever he's asked to approve a state grant application for a new social service.

A four-budget veteran, Schulte has seen some of those agencies return for city dollars.

"You don't want to set yourself up for future difficulty," he said.

The city rejected a new request from Big Brothers/Big Sisters for $1,500.

That is an expensive mistake in the long run, said Becky Price, a case manager and co-interim director of the Lawrence agency. She helps maintain matches between adult volunteers and juveniles at risk of choosing crime over school, drugs over work.

"We're helping them keep out of the system later," she said. "Our financial situation is pretty bleak. It's one of those things that we're not sure if the doors are going to be open next year."

Rod Bremby, Lawrence's assistant city manager, helps prepare the city budget. He said each request was evaluated by how critical the need was. The $1,500 requested by Big Brothers/Big Sisters would help the agency perform background checks on adult volunteers, he said.

"That was just not seen as critical as perhaps other requests," he said.

If the agencies can't get the money from the city or county, and state and federal budgets are equally as tight, where can they go?

County Commissioner Mark Buhler suggested that newer agencies try to consolidate their services with well-established ones.

"Our problems aren't particularly new," he said. "But we're specializing ever so much in this world. I mean, there's something like 17 degrees of mental retardation, but we don't need 17 organizations."

The watch face, momentarily still, pointed to 3:20, telling Ben his doctor's appointment was in 10 minutes. Bert Nash is a block away.

Before he stood to go, Ben told an administrator some good news. He'd visited an apartment earlier in the day and might even move there Monday.

If he moves that day, the house will have served its purpose for Ben. On the same day, administrators will face finding $1,100 for rent.

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