Valley agencies wary of cuts in Trump's budget blueprint

Paul Clark

Marian Keever’s teeth sparkled as she talked about how much she loves visiting Barbara Sugrue, her widowed friend that she was paired with through a federally funded program that faces extinction under President Trump’s budget proposal.

“I just love her,” Keever said repeatedly during an arranged visit April 13 at Sugrue’s East Asheville mobile home. As do other volunteers with the Land of Sky Regional Council’s Senior Companion Program, Keever, 82, helps Sugrue, 80, with some light housekeeping and meal preparation and, most importantly, with a little company.

Marian Keever, right, provides companionship for Barbara Sugrue of East Asheville in a program that President Trump has proposed be closed.

Keever held Sugrue’s hand as they talked about what Keever’s visits meant to them both. It was hard to tell who benefits more, but Ann Whisenhunt believes it might be American taxpayers who are the biggest beneficiaries. The senior companion program is “an extremely cost-effective program that keep people out of nursing homes,” Whisenhunt, the program manager, said while the two women chatted. Medicaid, a taxpayer-funded program, pays most of the costs when qualifying recipients go into assisted living homes.

Providers of services to the Swannanoa Valley’s elderly and impoverished are holding their breath over the proposed program cuts in President Trump’s budget blueprint. The cuts could affect Avadim Technologies’ $25.4 million expansion in Black Mountain Commerce Park, one that the Asheville-based company said would bring 550 jobs to the area.

Larry Harris, a Black Mountain alderman who is the town’s Land of Sky representative, and Land of Sky executive director Justin Hembree don’t believe the proposed Trump cuts would affect grant money that will provide partial funding to extend water and sewer lines to the commerce park. Though the granting agency, the Economic Development Administration, is one that Trump has proposed by eliminated, Harris doesn’t believe Congress will disband it when it approves the nation’s spending plan (Trump will present his final budget proposal in May; Congress will start the budget creation process in summer).

“I’d be surprised if you saw the cuts to the Economic Development Agency in the president’s (final) budget,” Harris said. “I don’t think there is any doubt” the grant to extend water and sewer lines to the Avadim plant will be approved, he said.

If the EDA were closed or defunded, there’s “a risk” the EDA’s potion of the Avadim money wouldn’t come through, said Erica Anderson, Land of Sky’s economic and community development director. Land of Sky, which wrote the grant application and would administer any money received, is in the “due diligence” phase of the grant application, Anderson said. It, EDA and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are awaiting an archeological study of two areas near the Avadim site that also could affect the grant application.

“No one knows if there is anything there, but we need to investigate,” Anderson said. “We’ve gone through the majority of the application phase. These are the final steps, but they are important.”

Foster grandparent Diane Logan talks with Roan Anderson, left, and Johan Gonzalez at the Verner Center on April 14.

Trump’s spending proposal released March 16 contains cuts that could affect Meals on Wheels and programs that provide companionship, services and job assistance for the elderly. Many of the Valley’s children could be affected too, if the elimination of a federally funded foster grandparent program were eliminated.

“Nothing has gone through Congress yet, so nobody really knows,” said Dianne Trammel, executive director of Meals on Wheels Asheville & Buncombe County. Twenty percent of its $840,000 budget comes from federal sources, she said. Three of 38 routes its volunteers drive in Buncombe County are in the Swannanoa Valley and serve about 48 households, Trammel said. Though they generated a lot of press when Trump’s budget blueprint was announced in March, cuts to Meals on Wheels “are far from being a fact just yet,” Trammel said. “Time will tell. I’m a little apprehensive about it.”

The proposed cuts are “pretty significant” to the services that Land of Sky Regional Council, a local government planning and development organization, provides to the Valley and to the agencies and people it serves in Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania and Brevard counties, Hembree said. The budget blueprint eliminates the council’s Senior Corps program that helps older residents volunteer at schools and nonprofit agencies.

Gone too would be the Community Services Employment Program that helps lower-income older residents who want to work find jobs with governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations such as CarePartners, the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. “Without employment, those folks would be looking for other services to pay their bills, get their prescriptions and purchase their food,” said LeeAnne Tucker, director of Land of Sky’s Area Agency of Aging.

“Obviously, we’re looking at budget numbers and their impact,” Hembree said, “but more importantly we are looking at how these programs impact the community. (Cuts) would probably have two significant impacts, the first being the impact on the volunteers. Research has shown that the more active older adults stay, the more healthy they are and the less likely they are to enter long-term (care) facility, which means there are fewer medical costs incurred by them personally and by Medicare and Medicaid.”

The second impact would be felt by the recipients of the services the Land of Sky volunteers provide, such as “the kids whose foster grandparents pick them up from school once a week to take them to get something to eat and help them with their homework and encourage them,” Hembree said.

“They’re amazing volunteers,” Charlie Milling, human resources and volunteer coordinator for the Verner Center for Early Learning, said of the foster grandparents. “They work hard, they’re dependable and reliable. In the classroom, they’re kind of that ‘third teacher.’ They’re able to focus on that one or two children that need extra support. That helps the entire classroom, because it helps the lead teacher.”

“Since these (foster grandparent) volunteers work about 20 hours each week, it is a significant help to all the agencies we work with,” Tucker said. Several studies have concluded that volunteering helps the elderly feel less lonely and isolated, Tucker said. And the small stipend the foster grandparents receive – about $200 a month - helps out financially. Receiving the same size stipend are the 67 volunteers in Land of Sky’s Senior Companion Program that is also proposed to be cut.

A lot of the programs that Trump suggests be cut “serve our most vulnerable residents, like seniors and children who are already struggling with food security issues,” said Kara Irani, spokeswoman for MANNA FoodBank in Asheville. The proposed cuts would affect the MANNA Packs for Kids Program, which each Friday sends a bag of nutrient-dense food home with 110 children in the Owen School District who might otherwise have nothing to eat at home over the weekend. Volunteers are currently sending out about 5,000 bags to schools each Friday for kids in the region that MANNA serves. As it is, the program serves only 10 or so percent of children who receive free or reduced-price school lunches, Irani said.

“We are working hard to hopefully be prepared if the budget cuts happen,” she said.