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Budget snafu leaves agencies serving Florida's poor without a safety net

A little girl and her baby brother look out the window with their backs to the camera
Odua Images
Thousands of vulnerable families will have their utilities turned off without a legislative fix

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has informed more than 30 social service providers statewide that the department lacks the budget authority to pass on federal funds meant for low-income families in crisis. It’s a good thing the Legislature is in session.

On April 7th, DEO Deputy Secretary for Community Development Benjamin Melnick wrote members of the Community Action Network that the department was reaching the end of its budget authorization for four programs. Those cover utility payments, child care, housing assistance and other anti-poverty services.

That means thousands of vulnerable families will have their utilities turned off and lose their job training and child care help. Hundreds of staffers will lose their jobs.

Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency in Tallahassee, received one of those letters.

“Most Community Action Agencies cut off services to families looking for utility assistance as soon as we received that letter," he said. "And that means that we’re now having to explain to folks that we don’t have funding to provide the services that they’re looking for.”

The Community Action Agencies are a statewide network of private non-profit charitable organizations and county governments. They manage a federally-funded safety net that helps eligible low-income families. But the Department of Economic Opportunity told WFSU, “With an unprecedented demand for services this year due to inflation, Hurricane Ian, wildfires and other disasters, DEO is reaching its limit for available funds in three programs.” Here’s Center:

“The deputy secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity has shared with us their goal of trying to find a resolution to this sooner rather than later. And they have assured us that they understand the impact to both the community and also to our agencies and staff, who we want to make sure still have a job and are not laid off,” he said.

The Florida Legislature appropriates budget authority to spend the federal funds to DEO, which then awards sub-grants to the members of the Community Action Network to administer at the local level.

“And we have an opportunity to fix this while the Legislature is in session," Center said, "and we hope that leadership hears the call for help.”

The damage is already being felt. One Community Action Agency has already laid off its staff.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.