story by Marla Cantrell
All that’s left of the Arkansas 211 call center is an automated message announcing the number is no longer in service.
The United Way program that connected those in need to non-profit and government programs across the state, ended abruptly last week because of lack of funding.
The program worked like this: Callers seeking help for things like paying rent, keeping utilities on, or finding job training after a layoff called 211. That one call connected them to all the available programs.
Nathan Cook, the former executive director of the Arkansas 211 system, said the service reached those in crisis across the state. Cook, 14 full-time and eight part-time employees, lost their jobs when the Pine Bluff center closed.
“I’ve been doing this for quite a while and hadn’t seen the usage of a new system like 211 in Arkansas,” Cook said. “In the first year and a half we had over 150,000 calls and over 300,000 Web site searches.”
John Nazzaro, Arkansas United Way board president, said the agency had already made cuts to try to save the program. The budget was trimmed from $921,388 to $450,000 and the call center closed on weekends. A normal work day went from 12 hours to eight. Even that was not enough. United Way wasn’t getting the kind of donations it anticipated when 211 opened only 19 months before.
The agency then looked to the Arkansas Legislature, asking for approximately $1 million. Two bills were passed to subsidize the program, but funding was cut during appropriations.
Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, said it’s hard to find funding for all the important projects happening in the state.
“Sometimes you simply have programs out there and the Governor and the chairmen of the budget committees have to go through and see which ones would get funded and which ones would not,” Green said. “And a strong enough case was not made, apparently, for this particular program to make the cut.”
Without state funding and with donations dropping, the United Way program was failing fast.
“We sat down at the end of spring. We couldn’t fund it. We’d already sunk over a million dollars into the system,” Nazzaro said.
Nazzarro wouldn’t divulge the amount of money owed to vendors following the closing of the 211 system. United Way is holding a meeting at the end of the month to sort that out. One of its vendors, however, is speaking out.
Christopher Beaty, IPC Communications director of operations, said United Way owes the company more than $190,000. The Bentonville-based company began business with the United Way in February when the agency paid $61,000 for a phone system and signed a two-year contract.
In June, Beaty said IPC disconnected 211 for non-payment. The matter was quickly resolved, but in October, United Way stopped paying again. On Nov. 4, IPC was told the call center was closing and the next day he learned the agency was hiring a dissolution attorney. It’s not the way he thought his relationship with the charity would end.
Nationally, donations to United Way are down 15% this year. In Arkansas, United Way donations fell from $18.5 million in 2007 to $16.7 million in 2008. According to the Giving USA Foundation, donations to all charitable causes in 2008 totaled $307.65 billion, a 2% drop in current dollars from 2007 and the first decline in giving in current dollars since 1987.
Nazzaro said there is a push to get federal legislation passed to fund the country’s 211 systems. But even if it does pass, the earliest any money would be available is October 2010.
Nazzaro and Cook believe the true test of the call center’s worth won’t be felt until the next big storm blows in.
“The state will be in a lot of trouble if disaster comes,” Cook said. “I don’t think they really realize the value of the system. But the system was used in the floods and the tornadoes last year. So much so that FEMA did a national article on 211 in Arkansas. ... It’s a sad day for the citizens of Arkansas.”