LITTLE ROCK — Federal funding reductions caused by mandatory across-the-board cuts and a reduction in revenue from the state tobacco tax have forced senior centers across Arkansas to reduce hours and meals programs, and some have closed, state human services officials told legislators Thursday.
Members of the Joint Budget Committee heard that general revenue for the senior centers operated by the eight Area Agencies on Aging across the state have had their budgets cut by about $889,000 this year.
About $482,000 was in federal funding and caused by the sequester — the $85 billion in automatic across the board spending cuts approved by Congress in the budget Control Act of 2011 — and $407,000 because of a reduction in tobacco tax collections in the state, said Krista Hughes, director of the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Aging and Adult Services.
DHS Director John Selig told the committee that annual collections from the tobacco tax revenues had been dropped from $2.6 million to about $2.3 million since 2010.
"As people smoke less, it’s generating less revenue," Selig said. "In this country, smoking continues to drop, which is a good thing overall, but as long as it drops so will that tax."
Rep. Fonda Hawthorne, D-Ashdown, asked about the budget reductions, saying that the centers in her district had cut staff and reduced their meals programs.
"I’m concerned about the centers in my area and all over the state," she told Hughes.
"It has been a significant challenge," Hughes said. "For the first time in our history we’ve had senior centers close their doors and for the first time in our history we have waiting lists for our senior nutrition program."
Hughes said the Area Agencies on Aging "have raised an enormous amount of money with money through fundraising efforts."
After the meeting, Hawthorne said senior centers in Little River and Sevier counties consolidated their directors and now have one director for both counties. Also, meals are now only being cooked at just two of the six centers in the two counties, she said.
"I’m going to try and find them some money," she said, adding she plans to ask the Legislature in the upcoming fiscal session to add some additional funding to the DHS budget for senior centers.
Also Thursday, the committee heard a request by the attorney general for an additional $334,900 to add up to five employees for a unit that would help coordinate existing school safety programs statewide. No action was taken on the request.
Aaron Sadler, spokesman for the Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said there are no immediate plans to open such a unit.
"First, to clarify, three of the positions being requested for our office are necessary for our ongoing needs," Sadler said in an e-mail. "Those three include an administrative assistant, a fiscal employee to keep up with online checkbook requirements and a forensic examiner due to cyber crimes caseload."
Sadler said Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, suggested last year that the attorney general’s office would be an appropriate place to house two additional positions to help coordinating school safety programs statewide.
"The AG does not intend to actually fill those positions, if created by the General Assembly, until such time that he could coordinate with law enforcement and education officials to determine how they might be best utilized," Sadler said.