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Legal service providers brace for another round of cuts

After losing state money earlier this year, legal service providers in Wisconsin are bracing for a dip in federal aid, as well.

On Wednesday, Congress agreed to cut $50.5 million for the Legal Services Corp., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that hands out grant money to 136 legal service providers in the country.

“Certainly, I would characterize it as disappointing,” John Constance, LSC director of government relations and public affairs said. “The crushing demand combined with state funding and other types of funding in decline means programs are in trouble.”

The current $372.9 million LSC budget for legal grants expires Friday and the congressional agreement is for $322.4 million in Fiscal Year 2012.

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the agreement this week, said Steve Barr, LSC media relations director.

Among those who rely on LSC money are Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc. and Wisconsin Judicare Inc.
Both organizations will lose about 15 percent in grant money under the current agreement, Barr said.

That will likely lead to a reduction in staff and legal services, said John Ebbott, executive director for Legal Action, as the Milwaukee-based group will lose $540,306 in LSC money.

“By the end of 2012,” he said, “we will have to lay 20 people off.”

The organization eliminated eight jobs after Gov. Scott Walker’s budget cut $3 million in state aid to Legal Action, Ebbott said.

To compensate for dwindling resources, Ebbott said, Legal Action is focusing on cases that have broad significance throughout the 39 counties it serves, such as seeking due process from housing authorities that seek to terminate rent assistance for low-income families.

“We’ve litigated a few of those,” Ebbott said. “Then we can use the decisions against housing authorities to prevent terminations for hundreds of people, without holding 200 administrative hearings.”

Ebbott said he is also considering consolidating of one or more of Legal Action’s five branch offices to save money.

Wausau-based Wisconsin Judicare will lose $144,425 in LSC money, executive director Rosemary Elbert said. That comes on the heels of a $350,000 reduction in state money as part of Walker’s budget.

The state cuts resulted in a 50 percent drop, she said, in private bar appointments by Wisconsin Judicare to handle cases at $45 per hour.

“I would expect a greater reduction in those appointments,” Elbert said, “and continued focus on keeping cases in-house.”

Wisconsin Judicare averages about 4,500 requests for legal service each year, she said, but can handle only 2,500.

With only seven staff attorneys covering 33 counties, Elbert acknowledged that the organization is forced to focus on clients most in need of help.

“Our eligibility guidelines are 125 percent of the federal poverty level or lower,” she said. “We’ve been focusing on those 200 percent or more below the poverty level, but because with less money, fewer people are going to be served.”

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