- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - For Jay Badams, shutting down Erie schools would be devastating.

It would send kids back into the streets where three students were killed over the summer. It would stop paychecks to school staff. But the finances at the 12,000-student district - among Pennsylvania’s biggest - are desperate because of an entrenched state government shutdown. And the cost to borrow money is steep enough that Badams is willing to consider closing the district’s doors until state aid starts flowing again.

“There is no good answer,” said Badams, Erie’s school superintendent. “The only good answer is to release our funds. We can fund our prisons, but we can’t fund our schools. What does that say about our state’s priorities? I’m angry.”

Badams, and his anger at Pennsylvania state government, has plenty of company. School districts, counties and nonprofit social services organizations are taking increasingly desperate measures to scrape by, as billions of dollars are held up in Harrisburg. Small business owners and nonprofit and government administrators are laying off workers, taking out loans or stopping payment on bills to get by.

The stalemate shows no sign of ending any time soon: Gov. Tom Wolf, a first-term Democrat, and the Legislature’s huge Republican majorities have deep divides over fiscal policy, education funding, public pension benefits and the state-controlled wine and liquor stores.

On Monday, Erie’s school board will hold a special meeting to consider Badams’ suggestion that the district temporarily shut down or stop paying staff. Badams would like to hire four more teachers - a starting teacher’s salary is about $40,000 - but that money will be sucked up by the roughly $200,000 cost to borrow the $30 million necessary to keep the district running through December.

“This is serious,” Badams said. “I think part of the reason that not much attention is being paid to the impasse is because there’s no tangible consequences.”

To a certain extent, the impact of a budget stalemate has lessened over time, thanks in part to a 2009 court ruling that allows the Wolf administration to keep all state employees paid and on the job, meaning a wide range of state services stay open.

The Wolf administration is funding Medicaid coverage for 2.5 million Pennsylvanians, making debt payments and keeping prisons open and state police on patrol. Administration officials also say the state can guarantee a loan for any school district that needs one to keep operating.

But administrators and county officials dealing with the shut-off of state aid say the ripple effect is staggering.

Brad Barry, president and CEO of Child Guidance Resource Centers in Delaware County, said he laid off 11 employees and borrowed as much as he could to offset a loss of about $300,000 a month, or 15 percent of his organization’s cash flow. Now, he is ready to go hat-in-hand to the county for money to maintain his programs battling truancy, helping mentally ill adults get through day-to-day life and counseling kids in juvenile detention centers.

“We’re down to the end,” Barry said. “I feel like a circus performer, We’ve juggled as much as we can.”

Numerous counties, including York, Lycoming and Clinton have piled up waiting lists for the elderly seeking day-to-day help in their homes, whether getting out of bed, getting dressed or cooking a meal. In many counties, there are no rental subsidies for domestic violence victims or the nearly homeless to help get a place to stay.

Some counties have fronted the money thus far for social services organizations and businesses. Others have not.

One business owner going without payment is Lorraine Confer, whose home health aides makes visits to the elderly in Clinton and Lycoming counties. Confer, 62, has used her own money to make the last several payrolls and will run out of money in early October. She is preparing to start seeking a bank loan on Monday, and worries that she will have to absorb the borrowing costs.

One of the people on the waiting list is a 74-year-old former home health aide she once employed for 17 years, she said.

“Is this going to go on until we find somebody dead in their home because there was nobody there to care for them?” Confer said. “Do we need a tragedy to make sure this is taken more seriously?”

___

Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.

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