An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision could result in the loss of 41 percent of C/SARA Foundation’s budget dollars.

An Oklahoma Supreme Court decision could result in the loss of 41 percent of C/SARA Foundation’s budget dollars.

Sissy Burge, C/SARA Executive Director, said OSC judges decided in favor of Oklahoma City attorney Jerry R. Fent, who challenged district court costs attached to civil cases which are deposited to non-judicial programs. Fent argued money deferred into non-judicial programs, but collected by court clerks, is unconstitutional.

One of the programs affected by the decision is the Child Abuse Multidisciplinary Account. Mandated by the Oklahoma Legislature, CAMA has been funded by a $10 civil case court fee since 2000. CAMA funds advocacy centers, like C/SARA, and what Burge described as “free-standing multidisciplinary teams” in counties that do not have advocacy centers, such as Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray counties. Annually CAMA generates approximately $3.2 million.

In 2009, C/SARA’s part of the proceeds was $97,000. C/SARA earned an additional $3,000 from program proceeds collected by Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray counties through contracts with each county to provide advocacy center services. With the addition of the contract fees, C/SARA could loose a whopping $109,000 annually.

Currently C/SARA’s yearly budget is $265,000. And while Burge said the court cost fee was never intended to be a “sole revenue” source for advocacy centers and multidisciplinary teams, a 41 percent loss of budget dollars is quiet a chunk of change.

“What it (fee) was meant to do is stabilize budgets — to keep the lights on and the doors open which, in turn, allows advocacy centers and teams to be able to raise the balance of the funds they need to operate,” Burge said.

And while C/SARA is facing the loss of revenue, the number of abused children served by the agency continues to rise.

“We had a 50 percent increase in numbers from 2008 to 2009 and in just the first two months of 2010 we served 55 children,” Burge said.

Is there light at the end of what appears to be a very dim tunnel? While OSC judges agree with Fent’s theory, they did stipulate in their ruling the $10 fee would continue to be collected until the end of the fiscal year. That is good news according to Burge.

“The court made that ruling to give the Legislature time to find another way to fund the program and it means we will have funding for about six months into the 2010-11 fiscal year,” she said.

But with the Legislature already facing an economic crisis, will they be able to resolve this financial blow?

“We’ve talked with our local legislators and they are trying to be supportive, but no promises are being made,” Burge said. “A bill has passed out of the House and has gone to the Senate, but what the outcome with be — no one knows.”

Rep. Sam Buck confirmed the movement of the House bill, but he said the measure has met with some opposition because the fee would still be collected in district courts. Buck said those who oppose the measure claim constitutionality remains an issue.

“Whether it will fix the problem might mean another court battle. The issue will be if the money is actually benefiting the court system and for sure it does, at least indirectly, benefit the courts,” Buck said.

With the issue far from resolved, Burge said C/SARA is already taking some budget belt-tightening measures.

“A moratorium has been placed on all extra training and travel for all members of the multidisciplinary team. That will save between $12,000 and $15,00 and we are planning a workshop session to discuss other ways to cut costs,” she said.

However, there is one cost cutting measure that is not an option — staff. C/SARA is staffed by just four people. Each of the four staff members, including herself, are what Burge describes as “hands on — client related.”

She said staff reduction is simply not an option.

And cutting costs isn’t the only issue on the table for consideration.

“In addition, we are going to be seeking grants and looking for ways to diversify our base. But we’re not looking at expanding and offering new programs, our goal is simply to maintain our current services,” she said.