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Like Many States, Ohio Reaches for A Lifeline

Communities across the United States continue to be battered by the struggling economy, including Columbus, Ohio, which is experiencing severe cuts within community service organizations as record numbers of people require help.

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First, he is angling for a $250 billion increase in federal payments for food stamps and Medicaid, the government health program for impoverished Americans and, increasingly, the working poor. Second, he favors a $250 billion national investment in infrastructure projects. Ohio has a list of "shovel-ready" projects, including roads, water and sewer improvements and "green economy" investments.

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Third, in search of a palatable pitch to a Congress and nation numbed by the parade of rescue packages, Strickland is teaming with a handful of other Democratic governors to seek a $250 billion infusion for education. The group includes Jennifer M. Granholm (Mich.), Jon S. Corzine (N.J.), David A. Paterson (N.Y.), Jim Doyle (Wis.) and Deval L. Patrick (Mass.).

So far, Strickland said, Ohio's school money has largely been spared the budget knife, but if revenue projections are accurate, cuts will be required in the balanced budget that he must submit by Feb. 2.

The idea is to plug federal dollars into the education budget, preventing layoffs and preserving programs. Otherwise, Strickland warned, "we're talking about real job loss and significant reduction of support for K-12 and higher education." The effects of sharply shrinking budgets are typically felt most deeply close to home, both in Ohio's cities and rural communities.

"Almost everybody is facing some kind of service disruption," Columbus finance director Joel Taylor said in his office at City Hall, a few blocks down West Broad Street from the statehouse. He pointed to cuts in yard-waste pickup and custodial contracts and $1 million less to neighborhood health clinics, a cut of nearly 20 percent. By March, 11 of the city's recreation centers, which provide art classes, sports, homework help, child care and senior activities, will be "basically mothballed."

The final decisions fell to Mayor Michael B. Coleman, a three-term Democrat appointed to the City Council in 1992. In a city cushioned by government work and Ohio State University, he said, "I never thought I'd have to do that, not in Columbus."

To continue operations at current levels would cost $698 million, Taylor said, but revenue is projected to be no greater than $615 million. The mayor is proposing a $643 million budget, which includes service cuts and requires $28 million from the city's dwindling rainy-day fund.

"Frankly, there's not much more to trim," said Coleman, who pointed out that the city workforce, excluding police and firefighters, has dropped from 1,800 to 1,300 since 2000. "Eliminate garbage collection or lay off police and firefighters . . . or I could begin looking at rec centers. None of these are good choices." Coleman is appealing to community groups and charities to fill the gaps, to "catch as many as they can." He said Neighborhood House, a nonprofit, intends to take over a center in northeast Columbus.

One of the city's biggest fears -- and an indicator of how governments are linked to one another -- is that the state authorities will cut $50 million in revenue sharing that Columbus receives each year. In ordinary times, Coleman might not be worried, but, he said, "governors and mayors are all in a position of doing things we'd never even considered doing."

Surveying the carnage, Coleman called a federal rescue package "essential to the salvation of America." The Columbus health department, serving a city of 750,000, expects in the coming budget year to lose $3 million of its current $19 million and 36 of its 200 jobs, said director Teresa C. Long. That will mean less prenatal care, less drug and alcohol treatment, free screening for fewer diseases and the elimination of hospice help.

It will also mean the end of the city's five-person rat control operation.

At the Homeless Families Foundation, which houses 47 families for as long as 80 days at a time, Karie Gallegos once had four counselors. She now has two.


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