FAIRFIELD — Martha Armstrong can use a helping hand from time to time and finds one at the family resource center at Cleo Gordon Elementary School.
Armstrong has been a widow for three years and lives in a Tabor Avenue apartment with her 24-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. She works at a local inventory company.
The family resource center has helped her find resources for rent payments, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. payments, clothing, transportation and even household cleaning supplies. On a recent day, Maria Gabbart of the center came to Armstrong’s apartment to talk about enrolling Armstrong’s son in kindergarten and to talk about child development and parenting.
“She (Gabbart) has a lot of answers when they’re needed.” Armstrong said. “When she doesn’t have the answers, she’ll find them.”
Now the family resource centers need a helping hand. They might be forced to drastically scale back on their services starting this summer, depending on what happens over the next few months.
Solano County has nine family resource centers spread across all seven cities to help needy families. Fairfield-Suisun has three centers that serve about 1,200 families annually. They are at Cleo Gordon and Anna Kyle elementary schools in Fairfield and Suisun Elementary School in Suisun City.
“The family resource centers are really unique in their own right,” county Principal Management Analyst Ron Grassi told the Solano County Board of Supervisors at its Dec. 11, 2012, meeting. “They’re put together with a web of financing.”
A key piece of the web is threatening to become unraveled. The county recently prioritized the way California Office of Child Abuse Prevention money is spent and the centers are not among the highest priorities. That could cost the centers about $348,000 annually.
Most at risk are the services family resource centers provide for families with children between ages 6 and 18. The centers would still get money from First 5 Solano, but must spend it on families with children age 5 and younger.
Should the potential budget cuts become a reality this summer, the family resource centers at Cleo Gordon and Suisun elementary schools could close, a county report said. Anna Kyle Elementary School would then provide all the services for the Fairfield-Suisun area.
While the centers are within a few miles of each other, the distance can be a factor for families, said Zoila Perez-Sanchez, coordinator for the Fairfield-Suisun centers.
“Most of our families, the problem is transportation,” Perez-Sanchez said. “That point becomes a challenge for us.”
Dividing up dwindling health and social services dollars has become a way of life for the county amid the Great Recession and its aftermath. A recent county assessment for certain state dollars placed substance abuse, mental health and kinship support services above the services provided at the family resource centers.
“I never wanted it to be a fight between whether a family resource center is valuable or not,” Health and Social Services Director Patrick Duterte told the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 11, 2012. “It is valuable. It is part of a whole system. The problem is the dollars are just limited.”
Family resource centers help stop needy families from approaching a cliff, while money is going to programs serving families about to fall off the cliff, Duterte said.
Perez-Sanchez sees another side to this prioritization of money. Without the family resource centers, more families would be at the cliff’s edge, she said.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Perez-Sanchez said.
The centers have already gotten a helping hand from the Solano County Board of Supervisors. The budget cuts would have kicked in Jan. 15, but the board on Dec. 11 2012, approved spending $160,000 to keep the centers at their present strength through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
That’s a one-time measure that buys time. Supervisor Jim Spering said he wants the board to discuss the bigger picture and what reorganizations might be possible.
“I would like to look at the service we’re trying to provide and then decide if this is the best vehicle,” Spering said. “Too often, we’re trying to protect the organization but not protect the services we’re trying to provide.”
The county will also use the time gained by the $160,000 to look for alternate funding sources.
County officials are working with family resource center officials to look at the situation, county spokesman Stephen Pierce said. No date has yet been set to take the topic back to the Board of Supervisors, he said.
Jennifer Ramirez uses the family resource center located at Anna Kyle Elementary School. She is a single mother raising five children. She cleans homes to make money, but lately has had trouble finding a job amid the bad economy.
“Four years ago, I could clean three houses a week and make enough to live,” Ramirez said. “Now, I can’t get a home a week.”
Ramirez came on a recent day to get help enrolling her 3-year-old in a preschool program. In the past, the center has helped her with such things as finding programs to help pay utility bills.
She shook her head when she contemplated her life without the occasional help she gets from the center.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know. I appreciate everything they do.”
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.