The ax fell with scant warning at Community Legal Services last week. The nonprofit law center that serves as a last resort for poor clients fired one-fourth of its staff, including four attorneys, in the face of a hefty drop in funding.

Long in precarious financial straits, CLS decided that it must markedly scale back its operation after learning in mid-April that the Arizona Bar Center foundation would not be able to provide almost $200,000 in funding expected this year.

The cuts will have a pretty dramatic effect on our ability to serve the poor," says Mark Santana, director of the CLS board.

With five offices in Maricopa County and others in Yuma, Yavapai and Mohave counties, CLS assists thousands of indigent clients with everything from divorces and landlord disputes to protection from abusive spouses. Rural programs help farmworkers who otherwise have little chance of even understanding the legal system, much less hiring an attorney.

Hardest hit, Santana says, will be the rural farmworker programs and a volunteer attorney program that CLS runs to link needy clients with attorneys willing to work for free.

The latest financial crisis surfaced when the foundation realized that falling interest rates had chipped away at the money it had available to donate to legal-service organizations.

The largest chunk of CLS' $2.6 million annual budget comes from federal grants, and the bar foundation is its second-largest source. This year, Santana says, CLS expected to receive a total of $400,000 from the foundation.

But the foundation's money comes from interest earned on lawyers' trust accounts (money from retainers and other sources). With interest rates falling, Santana says, the foundation is having to cut back its contributions to CLS and other organizations by 40 percent.

For CLS, Santana says, that has meant firing four of the service's 28 attorneys, as well as 16 outreach workers, secretaries and office helpers.

For now, he says, CLS is trying to keep its offices in Yuma, Yavapai and Mohave counties open with two attorneys each, although other workers have been let go. How long the satellite offices can stay afloat remains to be seen, he says.

This is a significant step back," says Santana, a lawyer with Jennings, Kepner & Haug, noting that CLS hadn't received a funding increase from the federal government since Ronald Reagan took office 12 years ago. The [bar foundation] funding was something that somewhat allowed us to keep up, although not totally."

In honor of its 40th birthday, CLS was planning a celebration this Friday at the Arizona Biltmore. Now the birthday party is being reconstructed into a desperation fund raiser, with tickets priced at $75. The center also plans to ask the Maricopa Bar Association if it might be able to free up some money.

Believe me, right now everything is stretched to the limit," Santana says.


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David Pasztor