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Indiana Legal Services weathers budget cuts

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Indiana Legal Services has opted not to renew the contracts for three of its employees. The cutback is due to a significant decrease in funding, according to Norman Metzger, ILS executive director.

“I want to emphasize here that what we’re doing is going to stabilize the organization, there won’t be a lot of pain connected to what we’re doing … right now we feel like we’ve taken all the necessary steps we need to take, but there are some uncertainties out there and we may need to take further action,” Metzger said.

The three positions to be eliminated – effective June 30, July 4, and July 7 – are in the Indianapolis service office and the administration office.

Earlier this year, Legal Services Corp. cut $237,000 in funding to ILS. Along with other reductions in funding, ILS is about $300,000 short of the budget approved by the board of directors in March.
 

Norm Metzger mug Metzger

The ILS board authorized the creation of a retrenchment committee to come up with ways to cut spending and make recommendations to the board. Bill Enslen, of Enslen Enslen & Matthews, in Hammond, was appointed as chair of the committee, reprising the role he served during a 2003 retrenchment. That year, ILS trimmed $1 million from its budget.

On June 10, the ILS board voted to adopt some of the committee’s recommendations, and it tabled others.

“The committee agreed that if you can freeze a vacant a position without hindering the delivery of legal services, then we should at least do it on an interim basis,” Metzger said.

“We’ve had a paralegal leave in our South Bend office and for the moment at least, that position is frozen.”

An attorney who left the Bloomington office to accept another job, however, will be replaced by a part-time contract attorney who understands how to work on tax-related matters.

The retrenchment committee asked ILS offices around the state to look for areas where money could be saved. Already on a tight budget, there is little room for savings, although there has been discussion of eliminating cleaning services.

“Should we terminate janitorial services and ask staff to clean the offices?” Metzger asked. He said he thought that it might be an unreasonable request, because ILS pay isn’t ideal anyway. “We pay peanuts to start with,” he said.

Metzger said he asked staff around the state to volunteer to switch from full-time to part-time status. A paralegal in the Evansville office will be part-time as of Aug. 1, an attorney in the New Albany office will go part-time later this year, and some people may move to part-time on Jan. 1, 2012.

Tabled for now but still under consideration are proposals that would reduce the mileage reimbursement rate to less than the federal level, authorize furlough days statewide, and strike the employer contribution to 401K plans.

Metzger said he would not be in favor of furlough days.

“At some point you have to pull back, look at your organization and say, you just can’t keep asking employees to make sacrifices when it almost certainly is better to lay off some people – let them go out and find maybe even better jobs – and let’s preserve the core mission of the organization,” he said.

Despite overall reductions in funding, ILS has seen some additional revenue this year. Several of its Area Agency on Aging grants increased, for a total of $4,000. Two cy pres awards – one from Indiana and one from a firm in Chicago – have amounted to about $8,380 in funds for ILS, and ILS has received $12,500 in attorney fees.

The ILS board meets four times annually – twice in-person and twice via conference call. In an emotionally charged meeting on June 10, board members discussed the possibility of cancelling the December in-person board meeting and training and instead meeting by conference call, Metzger said.

“How do you govern if you can’t see one another? But the reality is that between the board training and board meeting, $17,000 is involved, and one of the board members said, ‘If we don’t do this, we’re gonna have to eliminate jobs.’”

Enslen said that the ILS board members are a dedicated group – of the 51 members, an average of 40 attend the meetings. And some of the members, he said, would qualify for ILS services, due to their income levels.

“It’s not just a lawyer-run organization, and I can honestly tell you that our organization would not be as good as it is if we didn’t have those client-citizen members,” Enslen said.

He said that after the June 10 board meeting, many members – some who are client-eligible – offered to make donations so that ILS could hold its December meeting and training. “I think we’re going to be able to put it together, hopefully,” Enslen said.

ILS still doesn’t know what will happen in July, Enslen added, when Indiana’s Division of State Court Administration is expected to announce how the Civil Legal Aid Fund will be distributed. For the time being, Metzger said that the ILS board and retrenchment committee will wait to see how the cost-cutting steps they’ve taken pan out, and whether more budget cuts are on the horizon next year.

“You’d have to be living under a rock if you think 2012 is not going to be worse than this year,” Metzger said.•

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