Harvey Strauss Testifies at Montgomery County Hearing

Harvey Strauss today testified before the Montgomery County Commissioners about the harsh impact of the County budget cuts.  In his testimony he projected that 2-4 Legal Aid staff would be laid off, the Pottstown office closed, and 500 fewer Montgomery County residents would receive legal assistance as the result of these cuts.

Read the full testimony below:

Statement to the Montgomery County Commissioners on 11/29/12 re: 2013 funding for Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP) Montgomery County Division

"My name is Harvey Strauss and I am the Co-Executive Director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP).  LASP ,which is headquartered in Norristown,  provides civil legal aid to low income, often very low income residents of Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware Counties.   LASP currently employs 22 people in Norristown and 4 people in Pottstown, most of whom are Montgomery County residents.  It handles more than 11,000 legal cases every year,  2,500 in Montgomery County. Our clients are the working poor who live from paycheck to paycheck, the frail elderly, the disabled, and victims of abuse. Three quarters are women and nearly 40% are members of racial or ethnic minorities. LASP is the only organization in Montgomery County providing a full range civil legal aid to these very vulnerable county residents.

The funding Legal Aid receives from Montgomery County has been used to address a wide variety of civil legal needs of the poor and vulnerable.  Just in the last year we helped preserve housing for 165 people and avoided mortgage foreclosure for 25 more.  71 clients have had minor criminal records expunged so that they can attend school and secure employment.  Also in the past year, thanks to our efforts, 74 victims and their families received Protection from Abuse orders, 132 people have obtained the family security and stability that comes with a custody order and 51 families have been reunited through child dependency proceedings.

Legal Aid helps families obtain badly needed income supports that keep them housed and fed and provide stability in times of crisis.  Last year 54 clients and family members who had been incorrectly denied Unemployment benefits, recovered more than $17,000 in back benefits and $32,000 in monthly benefits going forward.  Legal Aid also helps families obtain food stamps, medical coverage, utility assistance and income for disabled children and family members, allowing them to pay for food and remain stably housed.

I am here today to ask you to reconsider eliminating funding for Legal Aid’s Montgomery County operations in your proposed 2013 budget.  Legal Aid has received funding from the Montgomery County Commissioners for more than 30 years and this funding was once as high as $320,000. Our most recent county allocation was $281,700 in 2012 and has been reduced to zero in the 2013 proposed budget.  $281,700 is about 21% of our program’s total Montgomery County costs.  Coming on top of federal and state funding reductions of more than 15% in 2012, and the loss of $600,000 program wide in recent years from the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program (IOLTA) as the result of record low interest rates, this cut will have a devastating effect on our ability to serve low income residents of Montgomery County. 

Earlier this year the Montgomery County division had to lay-off one Norristown staff attorney,  a Pottstown paralegal and a Helpline paralegal who was based in Norristown but serving the regional organization. If our Montgomery County operations lose $281,700 beginning in January, as proposed, we will have no choice but to close our Pottstown office, stop doing new CYS and Parental Termination cases immediately, restrict or stop taking new applications for Legal Aid from low income residents, end our weekly outreach in Lansdale and Willow Grove and lay off staff as quickly as possible.  Because our program’s expenses are overwhelmingly personnel, there is no way to deal with this huge cut without laying off staff.  We expect to close our Pottstown office very quickly and lay off our 2 support staff there as well as  1 or possibly 2 attorneys.   Each attorney and paralegal manages a significant caseload of clients, and the loss of any legal advocate will  result in significant reductions in the number of people we can help. At a minimum, with these cuts we estimate that we will be able to assist 500 fewer clients in Montgomery County in 2013.  Without Legal Aid most of these people will have no legal representation of any sort and their serious problems will undoubtedly get worse. 

Residents of the western, northwestern and central parts of Montgomery County who have been served by the Pottstown Legal Aid office will be the most severely affected by these cuts.  Even if people are able to make the trip to our Norristown office or get through to our central helpline, with these budget cuts there will be significantly fewer staff to handle their problems.

As a non-profit, Legal Aid aggressively pursues private sector funding – we know that government funding will never be able to fully support our work. Our program has been fortunate to have the support of our local Bar Association and Bar Foundation for many years.  They provide us with annual funding, help us recruit local attorneys to do pro bono work, raise funds each year by soliciting local attorneys and law firms for contributions to Legal Aid, and sponsor an annual Golf Tournament, which raised $32,000 in 2012.  In total, the Montgomery Bar Association and Bar Foundation raised over $100,000 for our Montgomery County operations in 2012. We also receive small and medium sized grants from area charitable foundations. All of these funds are important and needed, but they cannot replace the massive losses our organization has experienced from all levels of government funding in recent years.

In addition to reducing staffing, our organization has taken seriously the need for efficiency and reducing expenses. We have done our best to cut non-personnel program expenses, have negotiated less expensive health and benefit plans, and our staff has had only 1 pay raise in the last 5 years. We also ended our pension contribution to staff several years ago.  But this huge, unexpected reduction is truly devastating and will irrevocably cut into the basic and critical civil legal aid we have always been able to provide to our low income residents and their communities.

We recognize that the Commissioners are facing large budget issues this year and have had to make some very difficult choices.  We also realize that Legal Aid is not a county agency, but for many of our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors, we are the only hope they have to save their home, keep their family intact, get or keep an income stream, get protection for themselves and their children from an violent abuser or prevent becoming the victim of a scam. 

I am grateful for the financial support we have received through the years from Montgomery County. This county has always provided much more direct funding to Legal Aid than the other 3 counties we serve, and that funding has meant that Legal Aid in Montgomery County could do more to help the poorest of our citizens. One option for preserving services that is under consideration is for the county to engage Legal Aid for specific services on a contractual basis.  We are very willing to consider this arrangement which has worked successfully in our other three counties of service.  For example, in Bucks County,  Legal Aid receives County contracts for elder law services, for low-income residents in need of housing assistance, and from the County Youth Services agency for child dependency work in addition to a modest annual grant and the donation of office space to support Domestic Violence legal work.  Taken together, these sources of support provide more than $230,000 in annual funding and in-kind support and this could serve as a model for Montgomery County going forward.

I appreciate that Commissioner Shapiro called me on November 15 to tell me funding to Legal Aid would end in 2013.  I know the Commissioners face very serious budget concerns and have had to make difficult choices.  I know that County employees have been or will be laid off, but I sincerely believe that for many of our most vulnerable neighbors, access to civil legal aid is critically important.  I also respectfully request that you reconsider 2013 funding for Legal Aid, MCAP, the Women’s Center and Victims Services.

I have lived in Montgomery County since 1980 and worked in Norristown since 1976.  My wife and I raised our children here and Montgomery County is great for so many reasons, nice communities, great schools, wonderful public areas, terrific community based libraries, and a well-respected community college.  One of the other things that has always impressed me is that our County and its leaders care about and help all our residents and families, the rich, the middle class and the poor and most vulnerable among us. The funding of Legal Aid by our County government has always been one of the ways of assuring fair treatment and equal access to our judicial system for everyone.  I sincerely believe that by representing low income, often under or uneducated people, people with disabilities and those who do not speak English well, senior citizens with nowhere else to get legal help and those looking to get work, but prevented due to a minor criminal record, Legal Aid, our Courts and our County are all working to help those who truly need help from our Judicial system. If you need civil legal aid in Montgomery County and are poor and vulnerable, or program is your only resource.  I urge the commissioners to find a way to continue this partnership to continue to help our neediest neighbors.

Thank you."