February 18, 2010
Cut to the corps
Budget raid hamstrings Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps
Every weekday morning, Andrea Macias and Antonio Arteche wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the first of two light-rail trains to South Sacramento. Bundled up in green jackets and khaki pants, the couple endure the dark and cold on the way from their home in Rancho Cordova to Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps.
He’s a forklift operator; she’s a truck driver. Together, their work at SRCC supports recycling and environmental services across the county.
“When it was raining hard in Citrus Heights a few weeks ago, we were cleaning drains and filling sandbags,” Arteche said one morning on the way to the SRCC office, near the corner of 27th Street and 47th Avenue.
But for Macias, 26, and Arteche, 25, SRCC isn’t just a job, it’s a second chance.
“I didn’t do well in high school,” Macias said. “I had been working fast-food jobs and I got tired there.” Neither earned their diploma. As corps members, they take classes to fulfill high-school graduation requirements, and, hopefully, get a chance at college or further vocational training.
Throughout the Sacramento region, SRCC members work in recycling and cleanup programs. For example, corps members collect recyclables from Cal Expo—cans and bottles that would normally end up clogging landfills.
But as local government budgets bleed revenue, SRCC finds itself with skimpier work contracts—and room for fewer corps members.
“We could double our capacity for students given our current infrastructure,” said SRCC deputy director Andi Liebenbaum, a former criminal juvenile defender who needed a career change after becoming disenchanted with the way “the system treats children.” She’s worked in conservation corps programs for 15 years, joining SRCC three-and-a-half years ago.
SRCC formed originally as Sacramento Local Conservation in 1984. According to Liebenbaum, the corps has served more than 4,500 at-risk youth and young adults. An average of 15 youths each year earn their GED certificate through SRCC.
Liebenbaum said many corps members have been homeless, incarcerated or suffer from undiagnosed learning disabilities. But as governments statewide slash budgets, SRCC has been forced to cut services and to limit the number of youth they can serve.
SRCC relies on funding from several sources. One of them, the so-called Bottle Bill, was severely cut as the state continues borrowing from the California Beverage Container Recycling Fund. According to a spokesman at the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, the state has borrowed a total of $415.7 million from the CBCRF since 2002.
Liebenbaum said that SRCC funding from the Bottle Bill has been cut in half, from $1.5 million in fiscal year 2007 to $750,000 this year.
“The Bottle Bill was pretty reliable funding,” said Liebenbaum. “It was a huge part of our program.”
The cuts to the corps hurt everyone. For example, SRCC can’t place corps members at Cal Expo to empty collection bins as often as they would like—meaning more recyclable materials end up in landfills.
SRCC has secured some funding through other sources. Last July, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded SRCC a three-year, $1.1 million grant for YouthBuild, a construction training program for at-risk youth.
“YouthBuild has kept our doors open and is a benefit to not just our bottom line, but to the young men and women in the region who might not have had a program like ours to turn to,” said Liebenbaum.
Over the next few months, SRCC stakeholders will brainstorm ideas to keep their hamstrung programs funded.
“I don’t have any swift, easy answers right now,” Liebenbaum said.
Liebenbaum said that at the very least, the cuts have one positive effect: With the number of spots limited, absenteeism among corps members has decreased.
Arteche has another year to go before earning his GED. Macias recently completed her GED requirements and will graduate this spring. She’s trying to decide what to study in college. She appreciates the value of her time with SRCC.
“I’m lucky,” said Macias. “I’m really lucky.”