DISPUTE RESOLUTION SERVICES Agency asks county for funding help

The agency uses volunteers to mediate disputes and keep them out of court.
YOUNGSTOWN -- After 10 years of helping people solve their problems, a local agency needs some help of its own.
Mahoning Valley Dispute Resolution Services will have to shut down soon unless it gets more money to boost its budget, said executive director Jan Bailey.
The agency depends on a federal grant for the bulk of its funding but must provide some local matching funds to secure the grant, Bailey said.
The grant application for the next two years' funding is due Sept. 20, but as it stands now, the agency doesn't have enough money to meet its local match.
"If we lose that grant, we're not going to be around much longer," Bailey said.
MVDRS is a private, nonprofit agency that provides mediation services, mostly for low-income people. It was founded in 1991 by a group of people from the legal, education and business communities, clergy and civic organizations who wanted to provide people with an alternative to court.
The program is staffed by volunteers who are trained in mediation, Bailey said. They handle matters such as landlord-tenant disputes, neighborhood issues and parenting or custody disputes.
"Our top priority around here is low-income housing concerns," Bailey said. "We are really one of the only alternatives that poor people have when they have housing problems."
Saving time and money
The matters are referred into the program from municipal and county courts, as well as law-enforcement and community agencies. If they are resolved through mediation, it avoids taking the matter to court. That saves the parties money and saves the courts from being further bogged down with cases that didn't need to be there in the first place.
Bailey said the agency handles some 500 to 600 cases a year, which takes a huge load off the courts.
"We've gotten quite a few letters over the years from people who were thrilled with the service," said Robert Rupeka, common pleas court administrator.
He formerly worked in the clerk of courts office, supervising the county's misdemeanor courts in Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and Sebring.
In 1997, the judges enacted a 25-cent fee for each case filed in the lower courts, with revenue set aside to help fund the dispute resolution agency. It brings in about $5,000 to $6,000 a year, Rupeka said. The city also chips in money each year.
But Bailey said that's not enough and the agency is about $20,000 short of the $56,091 it needs to secure the $112,184 grant.
Private foundations provide some funding for the group, but Bailey said that's not the way to go.
"I don't know that it should be on the back of foundations to keep this place open. I don't feel good about that," she said. "We need to have a constant source of funding."
Fee increase
That's why she's turning to Mahoning County for help, and court officials are trying to do what they can. But with the county's own finances in limbo, a contribution from the general fund is out of the question, Rupeka said.
He's to meet later this month with the county court judges and ask them to consider increasing the fee from 25 cents to $1. Bailey said that would go a long way toward helping the agency remain solvent.
Joseph Caruso, the county's special projects director, said he's also looking into other funding sources that could help the agency meet its local share for the grant, though he said time is running short.
"I hope we can help keep this agency in business because I think they provide a good service," Rupeka said. "I'd hate to see them fade away without us at least trying to keep them going."

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