It’s the quiet before the storm for Connecticut’s private, nonprofit agencies. Expecting draconian cuts from the state this fiscal year, most barely felt a pinch. But that’s all going to change in 2012.

“We’re going to have a huge problem next year,” said Democratic state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chair of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “I think they’re going to have to brace for next year.”

Agencies on contract with the state received roughly 5 percent cuts from the $19.1 billion fiscal 2011 budget. They were expecting steeper ones. Overriding Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s vetoes, the Democratically-controlled General Assembly was able to salvage all but $216 million, said Harp.

Next biennium budget won’t look as pretty, she said.

“We got federal stimulus dollars ($1.3 billion), which we won’t get next year. We expended the $1.3 billion rainy day fund and borrowed about $900 million—all that’s gone and we’re going to have to deal with filling those holes,” said Harp. “We have to look at reducing the size of government.” And possibly looking at raising more revenues.

These are community nonprofits that help abused and neglected children and their families, people who are homeless, folks who need food and medical care they can’t afford and ex-cons trying to make it in the real world.

The Children’s Center of Hamden saw $45,000 plucked from its $16.5 million annual spending tab. This translated in having to relieve a part-time employee and the end of its discharge program, said Tony DelMastro, chief executive officer. Other workers will take up the slack of helping kids transition to the community.

“While we expect to fulfill our program expectations, the ever-increasing workload for these individuals leaves us with a decreasing margin of time as these program staff members are often dealing with unexpected upsets affecting the children served in our programs,” he said. The center serves about 290 children, the majority of whom live on campus.

The Clifford Beers Guidance Center in New Haven got $81,000 less from Hartford this fiscal year. About 46 percent of its $7 million budget is state money, said Executive Director Alice Forrester.

The guidance center was initially cut another $168,000, which meant the end of its reintegration-into-society program for children ages 12-18, who were sent away for sexually offending another child. But the Department of Children and Families came to the rescue.

“We appreciated DCF’s sensitivity,” said Forrester. “They were thoughtful about making the impact less for everyone. In New Haven, cutting programs for kids returning to the community is a real problem.”  She said it costs about $500,000 a year to treat one child for sexual-behavior problems in residential care.

“We’re traditionally underfunded by the state and we are sensitive about managing the high demand and high needs for services. So whenever there’s a cut we feel it very significantly. I’m more worried about next year,” she said.

Sen. Harp, who is also the director of the homeless health program at the Hill Health Center in New Haven, said in lieu of making larger cuts to nonprofit social-service agencies “we decided to cut a number of state positions and we also changed the way in which we deliver some of our services, to do it in a more cost-effective way.”

For instance, Medicaid for people with disabilities switched to a fee-for-service basis from its HMO delivery system. That saves money, said Harp.

“You now find your own doctor and have networks of providers who will treat these people,” she said, which saves millions of bucks each year because it’s now easier to get a doctor and thus access to preventive care. Under the HMO style, doctors often didn’t accept Medicaid patients.

Meanwhile, because of the economic collapse, the need for these nonprofits is growing, Ron Cretaro, executive director of the CT Association of Nonprofits, said.

“There are more clients coming in the doors; longer waiting lists. People who used to be contributors are now coming as clients and service recipients,” Cretaro said. He’s talking about people who once gave to food pantries, the Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare, for instance. He said more families and kids have landed in homeless shelters. 

“Organizations are resourceful and resilient, but stretched thin. There have been layoffs but many have attempted to avoid them by not filling vacancies,” said Cretaro.

Cut, then restored, restored, restored

Ten million dollars was taken this year from the Correction Department budget, but programs run by private, nonprofits for ex-cons returning to civilian life were saved, said Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven. Instead, there are fewer prison guards due to a 2009 early retirement incentive and a portion of the Cheshire prison was shuttered.

Looney, like many Democratic legislators, is a huge proponent of helping the nonviolent convicted outside of prison. It costs less and helps lower recidivism rates. “I think we should be spending more on alternative programs and less on prisons,” Looney said.

To compensate for the $10 million slash, money has come from other state departments for these community programs on state contracts. The Judicial Department got an increase of $1.4 million for extensive probation services; the Department Social Services received $3 million to provide rental assistance and mental health services to ex-offenders, and another $450,000 for 50 rental-assistance programs for ex-cons needing drug and alcohol treatment. The Labor Department received $500,000 for employment assistance.

“As a matter of policy, we need to be moving towards funding of alternatives to incarceration programs and reduce our prison population, reserved for the most dangerous offenders,” he said. “The key is, studies have shown that prisoners have the highest rate of recidivism than those who got alternative sentences, such as probation.”

For these out-of-prison programs to be successful, they need to be well-funded so caseloads are manageable, said Looney. “The larger the caseloads the less known about caseloads and decisions (are made) that don’t take into account particular circumstances of the offender.”