WILKES-BARRE — Congressional negotiators were generally lauding the passage of the federal budget in early November.
But U.S. Senator Pat Toomey was not cheering.
Toomey, R-Zionsville, continues to be troubled that the agreement takes $1.5 billion from a fund that was set up for crime victims to help offset the $80 billion in new spending in the two-year deal. He said it violates the integrity of the Crime Victims Fund, a program that covers the cost of counseling for abused children, financial aid for murder victims’ families and safe havens for domestic violence victims.
Janet MacKay, executive director of the Victims Resource Center, shares Toomey’s concern over the transfer of those monies from the Crime Victims Fund and hopes that it will not mean that she will have to cut staffing or services at the agency’s three sites in Luzerne, Wyoming and Carbon counties.
“The money coming into the fund comes entirely from fines and penalties collected from convicted criminals,” she said. “This money isn’t from taxpayers.”
Pennsylvania received $17.6 million in 2014, which translated into $400,678 being directed toward the center, a $103,000 increase from the previous year and enabling MacKay to hire three additional counselor advocates, doing everything from accompanying victims into the courtroom, doing one-on-one counseling and overseeing groups.
With a $1.3 million budget, MacKay said fund monies comprise about 30 percent of the agency’s resources.
“Our staff are, without question, our greatest resource,” said MacKay, “and often times they’re not in the building, they’re out in the community providing education and support. Staffing is so important when someone walks in and needs someone to talk to right then.”
She credits her 10 staff members with making the most of their time and energies. But even at this staffing level, there are unavoidable gaps.
A typical day will find a staff member spending time in the court room, travelling to meet with the victim of a crime and sharing information with area young people.
“I mean, we can cut corners and try our very best, but if we lose monies provided from the fund, it’s possible that we might lose staff,” she said.
When the fund was originally set up in 1984 by the by the Victims of Crime Act, the government distributed every dollar it received. That changed in 1984 when Congress decided to cap the amount paid out each year to ensure a steady steam of money would flow to the victims organizations.
The balance of the fund had grown to more than $11.5 billion in 2014. And, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the fund will receive an additional $5 billion this year because of a large settlements reached with banks, drug companies and other major corporations.
Although both Toomey and MacKay acknowledge that the fund has a significant surplus, they both believe that the best use for that surplus would be distributing more money to victims’ services so that it will continue to help victims of crime.
Toomey has proposed legislation that would create a permanent funding formula, requiring Congress to distribute an increasing amount from the fund’s balance, increasing the cap.
MacKay hopes that sufficient monies from the fund will be directed toward Pennsylvania and make its way to the county and the the Victims Resource Center.
“We continue to see people in need of services,” she said. “We continue to need funding to help victims who make their way to this agency and have a need. We definitely have a continuing need for increased funding.”
The center provides a wide range of services to men, women and children who are victims of crime. Those services include a 24-hour hotline, support groups, counseling and advocacy for victims. It also provides numerous educational programs for students of all ages, professionals and community groups.
A private and confidential agency, its services are in demand and they are free to the public.
MacKay has yet to been informed of this year’s cap or of the funding the agency will receive.
She’s hoping monies received during the last year will be matched or increased this year, and the agency can continue to move forward, providing more services.
“We serve so many that have a true need, not only victims of sexual assault, but families of homicide victims, elderly people who have had money stolen from them and crisis intervention,” she said. “Monies received through the Crime Victims Fund provide opportunity for us to continue to serve.”
“My hope is, again, that we will shine a bright light on the true cost of this budgetary gimmick that Congress has undertaken, and the true cost of the lost services to crime victims,” said Toomey.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Geri Gibbons at 570-991-6117 or on Twitter @TLGGibbons.