, Salem, MA

The Nation

March 20, 2011

Economy's strain on local governments grows severe



The consequences will be felt across an array of local services. Local governments already have made the relatively easy budget cuts, such as limiting library hours, reducing park maintenance or trimming grants to local arts programs. Now the cuts are more directly affecting the everyday lives of residents.

In January, the city of Camden, N.J. — one of the nation's most impoverished and high-crime municipalities — laid off nearly half of its police force and about one-third of its firefighters to offset falling tax revenue and diminishing aid from the state. Police Chief Scott Thompson said officers will no longer respond to minor traffic accidents and will not take reports on small thefts or property damage complaints.

A police union warned in a full-page newspaper ad that Camden will become a "living hell." Residents are trying to fill the gap. The anti-crime volunteer group Guardian Angels says it will patrol Camden, just as it has done in Newark, N.J., since police were laid off there last November.

In the Bayless School District in suburban St. Louis, students now must walk to school — or catch a ride from parents or neighbors — after the school board ended bus service. The cut came after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon eliminated almost half the state's school transportation aid.

"It was a cut that while painful, avoided more damaging cuts like layoffs or increased class sizes," Bayless school board president Jeff Preisack said.

When Illinois delayed payments to medical providers because of a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, the Vermillion County Health Department got a loan to stay afloat. Then, with the state more than $600,000 in arrears, the county decided to lay off half its staff and halt all services funded with state general revenue. Gone is the free clinic for sexually transmitted diseases and family planning, which served about 3,000 people. Also axed was a medical case management program for children in the foster care system.

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