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Central Missouri Community Action gets creative with programs, funds

Central Missouri Community Action gets creative with programs, funds

Most mid-Missouri residents first hear about Central Missouri Community Action when they’re in danger of losing their electricity or gas service.
As one of its many programs, CMCA helps residents pay utility bills, last year providing more than $1 million in such assistance through Community Services Block Grant funds.

“We’re known as the utility service place, unfortunately,” said Adam Tipton, community services supervisor for the Boone County Family Resource Center.

But utility help isn’t all CMCA offers. The Columbia-based agency provides assistance with child care, housing, taxes, weatherization, budgeting, job skills and family support, and it operates nearly 30 facilities, including Head Start offices, career centers and family resource centers. Last year, CMCA helped more than 11,000 residents in eight counties.

Restrictions for programs vary, but generally CMCA serves people who earn less than 150 percent of the poverty rate — an annual income of $14,700 for an individual or $30,000 for a family of four.

“We want to take them out of the poverty level and into self-reliance,” said Darin Preis, CMCA’s executive director. “It’s about people owning a stake in their community.”

New direction

When Preis joined the agency last October after serving as director of the Missouri Head Start State Collaboration Office, he outlined several changes for the agency. He unified the departments and encouraged the staff to make client referrals. He sought to challenge employees by soliciting feedback and offering leadership opportunities. And he changed the agency’s original name, Central Missouri Counties Human Development Corporation — unwieldy and poorly tailored to its mission — to Central Missouri Community Action.
“We’re trying to get the ship to make a right turn, and it’s a slower turn than I’d like,” Preis said. “But we’re getting there.”

Every organization, Preis said, has a life cycle during which business increases, hits a plateau and then reaches a tipping point between reestablishing success or tumbling into decline. At this moment, an organization must find a way to steady itself by asking tough questions.

“The organization must ask, ‘Are we in the right market?’” said Preis.

“‘Are we serving the right people? Do we have the right people doing the work? Do we have the right people on the bus?’ We’re right there at that point. I now believe we have the team in place to take us into that next life cycle,” he said. Six of CMCA’s eight program mangers, he said, have joined the agency within the past two years.

Insufficient funds

Yet CMCA funds are stretched at a time when the typical Columbia family income has fallen behind the U.S. average.

The local median family income increased by half the rate of the U.S. median family income between 2000 and 2005, reported the American Community Survey released in August.

Operating at a deficit since 2004 has forced CMCA to reach into its reserves. An economic downturn increased residents’ needs faster than the agency’s funding increased, said Pries, who anticipates a slight loss in the coming year.

“We want to be much more creative in the way we find funding,” said Preis.
CMCA received $10.3 million in state and federal funding in 2005. The agency now is turning to the private sector as it tries to add $10 million to its operating budget in the next 20 years. Since August, CMCA has mailed reams of letters to private organizations. So far these inquiries have sparked interest from two credit unions, said David Rosman, director of communications and development, who is leading the initiative.

“We just don’t qualify for many of the large private grants,” said Rosman. “For example, Hallmark, Anheuser-Busch and the Kaufman Foundation are territory based and don’t extend to central Missouri. But we keep trying.”
The agency also launched The Champion Campaign this year, seeking contributions from businesses and individuals.

Working poor

Another option is find ways to create revenue.

“We can charge fees for certain services,” said Preis, “and generate some income for ourselves through a sliding scale of considerations. We will have flexibility to get into that gap between poverty and living wage.”
For residents caught in that gap — about 40 percent of CMCA’s clients hold jobs — the margin for error is slight. At times, each day’s decisions come down to whatever need is most immediate.

“Most of these people are one paycheck from going under,” Preis said.

“They’ve got to make tough choices about things like health care, child care, quality of the food they eat. They’re making tough choices that often cycle them right back into poverty.”

Residents might have to let gas bills go unpaid for months, and the payments accumulate to staggering totals.

At the Boone County Family Resource Center, Tipton sees variations of the same theme every day. One disabled woman reported that her landlord refused to fix two broken windows, which CMCA found covered with cardboard when the agency investigated. A disabled man raising three daughters visited the center when his Social Security benefit increased by $10, pushing his income into a new bracket that decreased his food stamps by $200.

Tipton nods toward the lobby. A woman hoping for CMCA to restore her power is told she must wait until November. Two of her children bounce around the room, while a third rests in a carrier on the floor.

“That’s what we see,” Tipton said. “We do our best.”

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