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Government funding freeze hits Nova Scotian non-profit organizations 

Declining budget allocations are symptomatic of larger issues in the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, say service providers.

Officials from the Department of Community Services are patting themselves on the back because they didn't slash funding to nonprofit community organizations, but many ground workers think the department's priorities have been wrong for years.

In April, the department froze the budget for over 200 organizations provincially at $230 million. Community Services spokesperson Linda Laffin says a frozen budget "is actually good news" during economic recession, as funding could have been cut.

Laurie Ehler, executive director of Bryony House, doesn't buy the recession excuse.

"For the government to use economic downturn as a reason to not give us money, it's a little bit difficult to swallow, since it didn't give us money when the economic situation was good," says Ehler.

Bryony House, Halifax's only shelter for victims of domestic violence, hasn't seen an operational budget increase since 1996.

The centre's services are crucial, says Ehler, as one in 12 women in Nova Scotia will suffer from abuse from an intimate partner in her lifetime. Last year, the 24-bed shelter took in around 470 women and children fleeing abusive situations. Many stayed at Bryony House longer than anticipated because they had nowhere else to go.

Community Services gave Bryony House roughly $900,000 this year, but Ehler says it's getting tough to make ends meet when running a 24-hour service.

Bryony House isn't the only nonprofit struggling to provide its services with a tight budget. Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Nova Scotia, an organization providing mentors to at-risk youth, faces financial crisis as well. The organization has grown around 400 percent in the last 20 years without an increase in funding from Community Services, says Carol Goddard, the Halifax branch's executive director. The group now lacks the resources to match 1,500 children across the province on waiting lists with mentors.

Though many other nonprofits are hesitant to denounce the government for a continuous funding freeze, a look at Community Service's public accounts shows that many organizations have a grim financial picture.

Organizations like Avalon Centre for Sexual Assault, Alice Housing, the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre, the Single Parent Centre in HRM, Stepping Stone, Spencer House Seniors Centre and others have had funding frozen for a decade or longer.

Margaret Fraser, executive director of the Federation of Community Organizations explains that funds to these organizations have essentially been cut.

"It has been so long since many agencies have had a cost-of-living increase, not to mention any other increases, that maintaining the present funds equates to a decrease in funding," says Fraser.

Some see the funding freeze as symptomatic of systematic errors within the department, including a lack of communication between government and community groups and a reliance on federal funding.

The provincial government announced $128 million for affordable housing, obtained through a federal partnership. But NDP MLA Marilyn More, who's calling for increased funding to women's groups, transition houses and family resource centres, isn't impressed by the housing stimulus.

"They're using federal money that's already been announced and that's coming into the province to replace the provincial funding and commitment," says More.

That money doesn't trickle down to groups providing services other than housing.

Fraser calls it a "tragedy" that local organizations lost the opportunity to discuss the needs of their clients with government when Community Services issued the April funding freeze. Though a Collaboration Agreement was signed between the province and the voluntary sector in December, calling for increased discussion and shared accountability, there haven't been signs of more open dialogue from government.

"Community Services didn't meet with the partner charities," says Goddard, "before the decisions (to freeze funding) were made."

After the June 9 election, organizations may get another chance to lobby Community Services to discuss funding options matching the actual needs of their clients.

"I, for one, look forward to that opportunity," says Fraser.

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