Maryland’s primary provider of civil legal aid to the poor will try to avoid reducing its services in the wake of cuts to its federal funding, its chief counsel said this week.
The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc. will look at “any cost-saving measure short of affecting our capacity to serve clients,” said Shawn Boehringer, the bureau’s chief counsel.
The bureau provides free civil legal assistance to low-income Marylanders. Among the cases it handles are those related to family and domestic law, housing and public benefits. It has a $24 million annual budget.
Last fiscal year, the bureau opened 69,723 cases on behalf of Marylanders.
The bureau should expect to see its fiscal 2012 funding from the nonprofit, federally funded Legal Services Corp. cut by $650,322 as a result of a $56 million cut in the corporation’s funding. The funding reduction was included in a budget Congress passed Nov. 17 to provide money to five government agencies through the end of fiscal 2012, said Steve Barr, the national corporation’s media relations director.
The corporation distributes its funding to 136 independent nonprofit legal aid programs nationwide, including the Maryland bureau, which is the state’s sole recipient of corporation money.
Although the corporation receives its funding on a fiscal year schedule, it distributes the money in the calendar year, Barr said in an email. Its first fiscal year 2012 grants will go to local aid bureaus in January, Barr wrote, adding that the grants are administered on a monthly basis and so can be adjusted.
The Maryland bureau received $4.3 million from the federal corporation in fiscal 2011 and is slated to receive $3.7 million in fiscal 2012. Barr said that the figure is “preliminary,” adding that corporation officials still are finalizing their funding.
Maryland’s shortfall is roughly equal to the salaries of 11 of the bureau’s 154 staff attorneys, each of whom makes about $60,00 annually, Boehringer said.
Although bureau officials have not yet decided how to fill the funding gap, they likely will look to first cut travel and office expenses in order to avoid direct cuts in services to clients, Boehringer said.
The bureau’s main source of funding comes from the nonprofit Maryland Legal Services Corp., which gave the bureau $11 million this fiscal year, said Susan Erlichman, the corporation’s executive director.
However, the Maryland corporation won’t be able to help the bureau make up its shortfall because it faces funding problems of its own, Erlichman said.
One source of funding for the corporation is court filing fees. In 2010, the Maryland General Assembly raised the fees to help the corporation fund its operations, said Erlichman and Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda, the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Frosh said Wednesday that he was “not optimistic” that the legislature would be able to help the bureau plug its funding hole.
To do so, lawmakers either would have to hike court filing fees again — which proved unpopular in 2010 — or transfer funding from another state program.
“It’s like Sophie’s Choice,” Frosh said. “You have to pick which one of your kids you like the best. It’s a crisis.”