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Crime Victims Services Bracing for Major Cuts

The Texas attorney general's office is advising agencies that serve crime victims to prepare for big cuts during the next budget cycle because of a severe shortfall projected for the state's crime victims fund.

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Anna Chowdhury and the six employees at the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Bryan provide services to about 300 crime victims in a seven-county area each year.

When a woman is raped, advocates from the center go with her as she gets an invasive forensic exam, helping and comforting the victim in what is already a terrifying situation. Staffers man a 24-hour hotline, taking calls about sexual violence. They offer counseling, provide prevention education and even help victims find jobs.

But providing those services could get harder next year. Like many similar crime victims organizations statewide, the center is bracing for up to a 50-percent cut in financing from the Texas Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund in 2013. A perfect storm of declining revenue, inaccurate financial forecasting and penny-pinching by lawmakers have resulted in a projected $16 million shortfall in the fund. And Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which manages the fund, is advising agencies like the resource center to start scrimping and saving now.

“We’re trying to plan for it as best we can,” Chowdhury said. “It’s basically just trying to make sure we do everything we can without extra spending.” 

The Texas Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund was created in 1979 to help pay the costs associated with victimization, including funeral expenses and medical bills. In starting the fund, lawmakers intended to ease the rehabilitation process for victims and increase the likelihood that they would be able to help police catch perpetrators. 

The law requires the AG’s office to completely cover the expenses of individual crime victims who qualify for reimbursement. Remaining money can then be used to provide grants to other agencies that provide services to victims. In 2011, the crime victims compensation fund budget was estimated at more than $85 million, according to a legislative appropriations request from the AG's office.

When staff from the AG’s office approached lawmakers during the 2011 legislative session with its budget proposal, it projected that revenue into fund from court fees and fines would decrease about 3 percent each year. More than three-quarters of the fund is derived from those dollars.

But the Texas comptroller’s office told lawmakers to expect an increased amount of revenue in that fund. Under that scenario, the fund would have enough money to fund individual crime victims’ costs, pay grants to service organizations for victims and still have money left.

Lawmakers, who were scrounging for every penny to fill a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, went with the comptroller’s estimate when they wrote the two-year state budget. And they allocated the excess money that they expected to be available in the crime fund to pay for other victims services that had previously been paid for with general revenue.

The problem is that the AG’s prediction of reduced revenue from court costs has come to fruition. In July, Abbott’s office sent a letter to the agencies that receive crime victim grants alerting them to an expected $16 million shortfall in the 2012-13 budget year. And the agencies were advised to plan for the worst.

“We are writing to … explain the preventative measures we must implement to maintain fund solvency,” the letter said.

To help the agencies create a buffer for future cuts, the AG’s office told grant recipients that they could keep all the money they could save under the current grant cycle and roll it forward to the next grant year when they were likely to receive less money.

Daniel Hodge, first assistant attorney general and Abbott’s chief of staff, said their office has also cut its own budget for operating the fund by 12 percent for 2012 and 2013 to help save money. And the AG’s office is working with law enforcement agencies statewide to conduct warrant roundups to encourage people to pay their fines and penalties to avoid arrest and to increase revenue into the fund for crime victims. They are also working with legislators to find funding solutions.

“The crime victim services groups are critical to helping victims rebuild their lives,” Hodge said. “They help ensure that victims have the strength and support they need.”

Calls to a spokesman for the comptroller’s office weren’t immediately returned.

While they wait to find out what the budgetary blow will be, service groups are starting to look for ways to save now. Chowdhury said her agency is cutting back on travel and things like paper and trying to use more volunteers. But she is worried about the potential cuts.

“It may translate into cutting staff or cutting hours of staff, which will directly translate into reduced services, a reduction in continuity of care,” she said.

Lynn Blanco, president and CEO of the Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, said her agency has already seen its budget fall so much that it had to start a waiting list for counseling services. Last month, there were up to 15 people on the list.

“That’s pretty significant when you have individuals who have been sexually assaulted and are exhibiting trauma symptoms of that crime,” she said.

Blanco estimates her agency could lose about $55,000 of its $1.5 million annual budget if the grant funding were cut. Those cuts would come on top of cuts to federal grants that the agency receives.

Blanco has been seeking out other grant sources, but in tough economic times it’s difficult to find funding sources for a topic as uncomfortable to discuss as rape.

“When you’re looking at massive cuts all up and down, it’s just pretty disheartening,” she said. 

In Austin, SafePlace executive director Julia Spann said the crime victims grants help pay for advocates to go with rape victims to get forensic exams — more than 380 of them last year — and to provide them with counseling. The agency gets about $150,000 from the crime victims’ fund. It’s not a large portion of SafePlace’s $9 million budget, but it makes a difference, she said.

To save money, SafePlace has stopped salary increases and is cutting expenses where it can, Spann said. 

“It comes at time when the cost of business is increasing, demand for services is increasing and no other government grants are really increasing,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a double-whammy.”

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