John K. Manna
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Neighborhood Legal Services Association is looking for a new home.
Actually, it has found one — some vacant space formerly occupied by the police department at city hall.
However, the non-profit law firm is asking that it be given the space free of charge. Although Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo supports the idea, the decision for granting the space rests with council.
Some discussion on the request occurred at council’s work session two weeks ago. The matter is again on council’s agenda for tonight’s work session.
Neighborhood Legal Services, which has been in New Castle since 1974, is facing the closing of its office in the Temple Building and one in Butler because oaf funding cuts totaling $1.3 million over the last three years. Offices in Beaver and Pittsburgh will remain open.
The cuts, primarily in state and federal funds, also have resulted in the layoffs of 19 full-time staff members, according to Michelle DeBord, managing attorney for the association.
NLSA provides free legal service to help people with low incomes, the elderly and victims of domestic violence to resolve civil matters. Its cases include protection from abuse, landlord tenant disputes, mortgage foreclosures, Social Security disability and unemployment compensation hearings.
“What we’re trying to do is maintain an open door for the clients to come in,” DeBord said. “We can’t keep an office in every county. That’s why we’re looking for space that would be free.”
Explaining the reason for maintaining a local presence, DeBord said, “It’s a question of access. For people to call a place, it’s just another hurdle for them.”
Having people contact the office by telephone, she said, is not “the same as having a place where they can talk to a live person.”
If the office can’t obtain space in the county by the end of the year, the staff would be moved to Beaver and would travel back to New Castle for hearings.
“It wouldn’t be a good use of time,” DeBord said.
At council’s Sept. 10 work session, Councilman William Panella expressed opposition to the request, arguing the county should provide space. He said NLSA is “a substantial benefit to the county; that’s why the county should do it.”
Council president MaryAnne Gavrile argued in favor of having the office at city hall, saying most of the clients are from the city.
Christine Kirby, development officer for NLSA, said the firm looked at space on the third floor of the David P. Gettings Annex. However, she said “extensive renovations” would be required to provide handicapped accessible bathrooms for clients. She added that raising “that amount of money for a building that’s not ours” is not feasible.
Matthew Staniszewski, the city’s economic development director, has provided council with an analysis of the law firm’s request, listing the pros and cons.
Reasons listed in support include the fact that most clients are city residents and, aside from minor renovation and cleaning, there would be nearly no net change to the city’s finances.
On the negative side, he said providing free space could set a precedent for other organizations that faced budget cuts. Or, an organization may challenge why one entity is selected over another. Also, the city could potentially renovate the space and find a paying tenant.
Staniszewski did not recommend whether the request should be approved or denied.
By the numbers
A quick look at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association. They agency:
•Handled 811 cases in Lawrence County in the 2012-13 fiscal year that ended June 30.
•Helped nearly 2,000 individuals and families.
•Obtained $1,371,531.42 in back awards/settlements for clients along with $224,416.41 in total monthly benefits, thus having an economic impact in the county.