WINCHESTER — The Northern Shenandoah Valley's only emergency refuge for victims of domestic and sexual assault is facing one of the most grim financial crises of its 40-year existence.
With just 30 days before the start of its new fiscal year on July 1, The Laurel Center in downtown Winchester was informed that its 24-month allocation from the U.S. Justice Department's Crime Victims Fund (CVF) had been reduced by $610,000. That equates to a $305,000 funding loss for each of the next two fiscal years and represents a nearly 12% reduction in the center's annual operating budget of $2.6 million.
"I'm mad as hell about this," said Faith Power, executive director of The Laurel Center. "It's coming at a time when, quite frankly, we are experiencing an all-time high demand for our services, due in no small part to COVID and its impact."
The CVF is comprised of annual proceeds from fines and court payments made by convicted criminals across the country. The pool of money is shared by each of the 50 states to support local crime-victim support agencies like The Laurel Center.
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Virginia and most other states to place a moratorium on felony trials, with one of the results being a significant drop in the amount of fines and court costs collected and deposited into the CVF. While CVF allocations fluctuate each year, the total pool of money given to Virginia in fiscal year 2021 was $27.8 million, a 10-year low. In comparison, the commonwealth received $42.7 million in fiscal year 2020, $57.8 million in fiscal year 2019 and $85.4 million in fiscal year 2018.
While Power said she anticipated some reduction in The Laurel Center's share of the latest CVF allocation, she was shocked to learn the drop would be so extreme. Even more troubling, though, was the fact that no one told her about it until late May, just one month before she would enact the center's already prepared budget for fiscal year 2022.
Power said the funding loss over the next two years will force her organization to reduce services, including the closure of The Laurel Center's satellite office in Front Royal. That's a significant issue, she said, because the need for support services for domestic and sexual assault victims in that locality is so great that the Virginia General Assembly asked the center to open an office there in 2014.
Most of the women, men and children served by the Winchester-based Laurel Center will be impacted by the reduction in support services. For example, Power said there will be limits on how many abuse victims can be sheltered and longer wait times for clients to meet with a therapist.
"Right now, even without these cuts, we have a wait list for some of our therapy services," she said. "Some people have already been on that list for a year. ... The fact that people are waiting longer for our services really compounds the trauma that they're experiencing."
While she's hesitant to talk about potential job losses because of the funding cut, Power said she'll most likely have to reduce her staffing numbers through attrition unless she can find a way to fill the hole in her budgets for fiscal years 2022 and '23.
She has already requested help from state legislators including Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, and Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville. Power is asking if some of the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) money funneled to Virginia and its localities in the Northern Shenandoah Valley could be allocated to The Laurel Center to help make up for the $610,000 funding loss over the next two fiscal years.
The $1.9 trillion ARP was approved by the federal government in March to address the economic fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia will receive nearly $4.3 billion in stimulus funds, with additional appropriations going to Winchester ($12.3 million), Frederick County ($17.3 million) and Clarke County ($2.8 million).
Vogel did not return a call to The Star before deadline on Monday, but Gooditis said she would be "absolutely happy to direct some of that funding to The Laurel Center, but no guarantees of course."
Gooditis said she also asked the boards of supervisors in Frederick and Clarke counties to write letters to the General Assembly supporting Power's request for ARP funds. Both agreed to do so.
The General Assembly will meet in special session later this summer to allocate the stimulus funds.
"We'd love to have individuals call their local representatives to make them aware that they think money from the stimulus package that's coming to the state of Virginia should be allocated toward domestic violence and sexual assault programs across the commonwealth," Power said.
Regardless of what happens with the ARP money, Power said The Laurel Center's plan to open a cafe in a former train station at 430 N. Cameron St. will not be affected. That's because money and resources have already been allocated for that project, which aims to provide workforce training to clients who are rebuilding their lives after years of abuse.
Also, the center's retail store, Good Things for a Good Purpose at 37 E. Piccadilly St. in Winchester, will continue operations. The store is staffed by volunteers, Power said, and money for its operations is derived from private donations.
For more information, visit thelaurelcenter.org.