I-TEAM: A closer look at budget cuts due to COVID-19

We’re taking a closer look at proposed budget cuts due to COVID-19
Published: Jun. 18, 2020 at 3:25 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - There’s a glimmer of good news from the Georgia Capitol as cuts to other critical services for children and the elderly may not be as steep as first feared.

In this new budget, we found cuts to nursing homes and child services through DFCS are nowhere near as drastic as first proposed. This as experts say these state programs are needed now more than ever due to the COVID crisis.

Let's start with the hard-hit nursing home sector. COVID-19 has ravaged that industry. Twenty-four local long term care facilities on the Georgia side of the river alone have all reported coronavirus cases.

As we reported this week, $2 million in cuts were slated to come from critical senior services. Brian Lee, an elderly care advocate, says it is our seniors who need the state money more than ever in the COVID-19 crisis.

"What can families do? What can people do? The good thing about our country is we have elected representatives who serve the voters, so the voters can go ahead and contact their lawmakers. They should tell them no. What is really needed more money pushed into nursing homes, not to the nursing home owners but to the enforcement side."

That's just what we found: lawmakers are listening. Ombudsmen are now saved. An ombudsman is an advocate for senior citizens in cases of abuse and neglect. We found the new budget saves all of those positions. Twelve nursing home inspectors were slated to be cut, but now only one will be lost. Some employees are even getting a raise. Home delivery meals to senior citizens will also not be cut.

“We owe it to them,” Lee said. “They have given us rights, protections, and freedoms. And now we owe it to them to protect their rights, protections, and freedoms.

We found lawmakers are trying to protect at-risk children as well. The new proposal includes shifting $1 million from marriage and divorce fees and funneling it into child services.

Now, $6 million in employee furloughs are proposed versus $20 million suggested last week. Some employees will get a pay raise to fight high turnover. There's also more money for merit-based pay, employee recruitment, and retention. But a $1 million will still be axed from the child abuse registry. Foster care services will still lose funding. One-hundred and twenty-seven vacant social services positions, or caseworkers for children, will be eliminated. Also funds to recruit new foster parents will be slashed by a quarter-million dollars.

John DeGarmo is a foster care parent who runs the Foster Care Institute in Georgia.

He's wondering what the new normal is going to look like.

"I wish I knew," DeGarmo said. "I don't think anyone knows what the new norm is going to look like. It's going to look like a lot more online resources for foster parents, for adoptive parents, for social workers. It's going to look like a lot more online training, maybe some virtual orientation. Georgia right now is struggling to recruit foster parents and we're having a time of shelter in place. How can you meet that?"

As for mental health and addiction services, we found no changes there. As much as $2 million dollars may still be cut there.

The full Senate will now debate this new version of cuts. It heads to the House next week. The budget must be passed by July 1.

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