Vashon Youth & Family Services faces tough financial picture

Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) could see a 10 to 15 percent across-the-board budget cut this year — the result of a decline in United Way funding, the state’s far-reaching budget troubles and other financial shortfalls wreaking havoc on the small agency’s ledger.

Sam Collins, who heads the social service agency, said VYFS is looking at a $70,000-to-$110,000 cut in its $700,000 annual budget, which begins July 1. Some of the financial turmoil has already affected the agency: In January, it had to drop a program reaching out to Spanish-speaking families when a one-year contract from a Seattle agency was not continued, he said.

Other cuts will likely affect its school-based programs, including the “care teams” it supports at Chautauqua Elementary School and the “success teams” it helps to staff at McMurray Middle School.

“Funding cuts have put at risk almost all of our school-based programs over the next two years,” Collins said.

“I’m trying not to panic,” he added. “But at the same time, it’s a serious situation for us and for everybody.”

Greg Allison, principal at McMurray, said he’d be sorry to see VYFS’s support of its success teams fall by the wayside. The agency, he said, has played an important role in ensuring students who are struggling academically get some of the support they need to improve their performance. The agency has also helped McMurray staff work with the families of struggling students and offered drug and alcohol intervention, Allison said.

“It’s been a pretty valuable partnership ... over the past several years,” Allison added.

VYFS’s financial picture for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is still somewhat uncertain, since much depends on what happens in Olympia, where state budget writers are struggling to address a staggering $9 billion deficit. Collins said he expects that when the ink dries, the agency will face cuts in its Medicaid reimbursement rates for some of the clients it sees for mental health or chemical dependency issues.

A significant part of the picture, however, is clear, Collins said. Three weeks ago, the agency got word that it will see a 35 percent cut in its funding from United Way of King County. VYFS will receive no money from the umbrella agency for its chemical dependency work; no funding for its school-based programs; and level funding for its early-learning program, where VYFS sought a slight increase.

All told, the agency’s United Way funding fell from $90,000 to $62,000, Collins said.

VYFS also lost a $15,000 King County grant for emergency services when it was not included in an e-mail invitation to submit proposals, despite having received the funds in previous years, Collins noted. While he said he should have been aware of the funding cycle, Collins also said the misstep is another sign of the times: In a financially healthier year, the county likely would have been able to find another way to offer up the funds once the mistake had been discovered, Collins said.

“Because of the budget situation, there was no recourse,” Collins noted.

The United Way cuts are particularly hard, in part because United Way funding has not, in fact, decreased this year. United Way told Collins VYFS did not “compete well,” he noted, even though the Vashon agency attempted to follow United Way’s funding directives and priority-setting decisions.

Other small agencies in the Puget Sound region can send their clients to centralized programs and agencies for support, Collins added. “But we’re an isolated community,” he said.

“We have a diverse funding base,” he added. “But the United Way cut was a big one.”

United Way officials, however, said they felt they had to reset their organization’s priorities to reflect the current economic turmoil and the impact it’s having on struggling families. Jared Erlandson, a spokesman for United Way of King County, said the organization directs its funds toward various outcomes — and this year, the organization made “basic needs” one of its top priorities. Programs for youth, on the other hand, were not as high on the list, he said.

Late last year, United Way looked to philanthropists in the region to enhance its funding for basic needs — food and housing — and got a fantastic response, Erlandson said. United Way put forward a $500,000 challenge to the community, hoping to see it matched; the community — including some large foundations and individual donors — contributed $1.6 million.

As a result, United Way’s contributions to King County nonprofits will likely be the same this year as last year, Erlandson said, with an emphasis on basic needs and two other top priorities — ending homelessness and ensuring young children are ready to learn when they enter school.

Those organizations that applied for funds for different programs — such as VYFS — just didn’t fare as well, he added. “We’re trying to be as fiscally responsible ... and meet the needs where they’re most urgent,” Erlandson said.

Both Collins and Larry Commeree, who chairs the VYFS board of directors, said they understand the situation that United Way is in.

“United Way wasn’t just picking on VYFS in making these cuts,” Commeree said. “They’ve seen a huge mushrooming of need countywide. ... It’s putting before them some tough choices in how to spend money.”

But the funding challenges come at a critical time for VYFS, which has seen a blossoming of its programs and services in recent years, both men said.

The organization now has a staff member working full-time on housing and homelessness issues; its new PlaySpace at the corner of Vashon Highway and Gorsuch Road has enhanced its already robust early learning programs; and it has a new chemical dependency program that is filling a much-needed gap in services on Vashon, Collins and Commeree said.

“In terms of growth and hope, it’s absolutely the best year,” said Commeree.

The organization has a reserve that will likely help it get through the current budget crisis. It’s also hoping that private fundraising efforts, including its upcoming May phone-a-thon, will give the agency a boost.

“We don’t want to dismantle all of this,” Collins said. “We’re going to retool a bit. We don’t want to retrench, but we may have to.”

But Collins said he’s also concerned the tough financial situation facing several agencies — from the Vashon school district to the Island’s food bank — could set up a competition where no one wins. He’d like to see a broad-based discussion that helps the Island set shared priorities for a healthy community.

“It’s all so interrelated on this Island,” he said. “So when you have one group

step on the toes of other groups, it has significant repercussions. ... If there were a plan in place, I think you’d create the public will to support it.”

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