United Way Collects Far Less Than Goal : Charity: Officials say the weak economy caused the shortfall and has generated a greater demand for services. The target was $6.6 million, but donations reached only $5.7 million.

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Contributions to the United Way of Ventura County have fallen $900,000 short of this year's goal as job cutbacks and a struggling economy have depleted the number of donors, United Way officials said Monday.

At the same time, the swelling ranks of the unemployed have added to the demand on the 64 service agencies that depend in part on the United Way for its contributions.

"People are losing their jobs, and instead of giving us their donations, they are in need of receiving our services," said Marti Kessler, the director of United Way's local fund-raising effort.

With its annual campaign scheduled to end today, the United Way chapter had received $5.7 million in donations by Monday, far short of the $6.6 million the group had targeted.

Officials point out that the total received is $100,000 less than last year's contributions. But the requests for United Way's funds have gone up with the increase of needy county residents during the recession.

United Way of Ventura County is an umbrella group that raises funds and distributes them to 64 agencies that provide food, shelter, housing, medical and educational services to county residents.

The agencies that receive the largest amount of United Way dollars include the American Cancer Society of Ventura County, American Red Cross, a number of Boys and Girls Clubs and Ventura Youth Employment Service.

Colleen Hunter, executive director of Ventura's United Way, blamed the fund-raising shortfall on the county's depressed economy. With nearly 80% of contributions coming from payroll deductions of individual employees, job reductions have hurt this year's donation drive, she said.

A United Way study confirmed that more than $280,000 in donations were lost this year because major corporations have cut employees or left the county, Hunter said.

For example, United Way lost $65,000 from employees of Northrop after the aerospace firm abandoned its Thousand Oaks plant, $59,000 from AIL Aerospace that pulled out of Westlake, and $12,000 from Ferrante Aerospace that also left the Conejo Valley.

Despite the sagging economy, some companies, including Chevron, Amgen and GTE, have substantially increased donations and other companies are participating this year for the first time, Kessler said. But the increased donations and new donors have not compensated for the loss of donors, she said.

"Every time we have a success with a new participating company, we lose a larger company and are back to where we started," Kessler said.

Hunter said this year's donation drive was not hurt by the scandal surrounding the forced resignation of William Aramony, the president of United Way of America. But she said negative publicity could hurt next year's drive when employees sign up for another round of payroll deductions.

Aramony resigned earlier this year after local United Way leaders complained about his annual compensation package of $463,000, his high-style travels and his creation of spinoff business headed by his son.

United Way of Ventura County has withheld its $54,000 in dues owed to the national organization to signal its dissatisfaction, Hunter said. "We have called for a total restructuring," she said. "We feel there weren't enough checks and balances in place."

With the conclusion of the donation drive, teams of United Way volunteers now begin to visit each member agency and evaluate the need for funding, Hunter said.

The task will not be easy, Hunter said. "It will be painful going out there. All the agencies are asking for more than they received last year, but there is going to be less to give."

Hunter said United Way will determine which service agencies have the greatest needs and will lop off funding for duplicative services.

But sometimes even a relatively small donation is crucial for the agency that receives it, Kessler said. Agencies often "leverage" their United Way dollars by soliciting matching grants from private sources, she said.

Clinicas Del Camino Real, which operates health care clinics in Fillmore, Saticoy and Oxnard, received $119,000 last year and has asked for $150,000 this year, said Christina M. Velasco, who manages the Oxnard clinic.

The clinic has a waiting list of up to four weeks for routine health care, Velasco said, because of a 10% increase in visits from clients, mostly migrant laborers and their families. "When you have 20 patients on a waiting list, the United Way help means a lot," Velasco said.

Nancy Shook, executive director of American Cancer Society of Ventura County, said it would be extremely serious if United Way reduces its contribution. Last year, $153,000 from United Way funding made up 18% of the Cancer Society's total income. To lose any of that, Shook said, the society may have to trim its programs to transport cancer patients and provide counseling, wheelchairs, beds and other equipment.

"The timing (of more cuts) couldn't come at a worse time for the patients," Shook said, given that patients already face gaps in medical insurance and cutbacks in health care services.

As the donation drive draws to a close, United Way volunteers have stepped up efforts to contact potential last-minute contributors, Kessler said.

But the outlook remains doubtful. "There aren't many rabbits left to pull out of my hat," Kessler said.

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