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Fundraisers Help Agency Serve Needy Clients

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

  • Fredericksburg Free Lance Star


The good news: Rappahannock Legal Services won’t lose $200,000 when federal budget cuts occur in January.
The bad news: The legal aid agency based in Fredericksburg doesn’t have federal money to lose in the first place.

Congress recently cut $50 million in funding to Legal Services Corp., which pays for civil legal services to poor people nationwide.

But not locally. Rappahannock Legal Services is one of three Virginia programs not receiving federal funds, said Dawn Chase, communications director for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

In 2002, then Director Bill Botts decided to stop taking the federal money to save legal services in rural areas such as Tappahannock and Culpeper.

At the time, federal trends veered toward consolidating small legal aid programs, said Ann Kloeckner, director of Rappahannock Legal Services.

“Mr. Botts was concerned that smaller programs would disappear,” she said. “He took a principled stand, and it had the consequence of us losing that funding.”

At the time, about one-third of the agency’s budget came from Legal Services Corp.

In some ways, the loss was good, Kloeckner said. The agency could then keep its rural offices open, and could also have more freedom in representing victims of domestic violence no matter what their immigration status. Under federal rules, legal aid agencies receiving tax dollars are not allowed to help anyone without documentation.
Its attorneys also represent low-income residents with cases involving disability, food stamp and custody matters. Staff members also work to prevent homelessness and help with housing issues.

But Rappahannock Legal Services has had to be cheap and creative. The agency’s annual budget of $930,000 comes from 44 sources, including local governments, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, individual donors and area churches.

Even with those pots of money, the agency must turn away two-thirds of potential, eligible clients because of a lack of money.

Congress’ financial support for legal help for the poor has been fickle. By not taking federal dollars, the agency doesn’t have to hold its breath every time budget cuts are mentioned.
But the agency won’t make the most recent cut unscathed. It will lose about $3,000 in a subgrant for pro bono legal services.
Still, other Virginia agencies will lose nearly $200,000 each. Statewide, about $1.1 million will be lost, Chase said.
“We’re looking at a $3,000 gap,” Kloeckner said, “but many other programs are laying off attorneys. They’re having to make some pretty tough choices.”

And across the country, the cuts will make it harder for legal aid agencies to serve the needy. The agencies have already faced other cuts, decreased donations and rising demands.

“Most offices in Virginia and across the country are scrambling to figure out what they’re going to do,” Kloeckner said.

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