BENNINGTON — The United Counseling Service (UCS) held its annual legislative breakfast on Monday to address economic burdens that the organization will face this year, which will ultimately impact the programs offered to the community.
UCS Executive Director Ralph Provenza said the organization's biggest challenge right now is recruitment and retention of workforce due to "low wages and the inability to guarantee a raise." UCS has a staff of 300 while 10 percent of those positions are vacant for months and years at a time; however, the staff turnover rate is 25 percent, below the current average of 28 percent.
"I hope you recognize that we will not be able to provide the same level of service in the coming year," Provenza said. "I know legislators, you're thinking dollars are tight and it's a Medicaid problem, but to me this is a value-based issue and it has to do with what we value as a system and community."
Julie Tessler, the executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental & Mental Health Services, advocates at the Statehouse in Montpelier for UCS but thinks she's not being heard.
"All the work that we do, we're supporting the health of our community and without us, our state wouldn't function as well; we have a big impact," Tessler said. "When we go advocate, the legislators say 'we have no money,' and I want to say 'don't you get it? This is the investment you need to make because you don't have any money.' There's new funding for Department for Child-Families (DCF), suicide prevention and Medicaid assisted treatment. The work we do is the foundation and if you really want to prevent suicide, let's work with our children and families. Let's make sure our outpatient programs are fully accessible."
An autism program was developed over the past year along with a trained professional, however Provenza said the program can't be run because "the rates had been publicized to be cut dramatically."
"It's very disheartening for me to be here and listen to cuts for things like autism," said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. "We in the law enforcement world are getting trained for more and more dealing with people in mental crisis and people who have autism. The spectrum continues to rise. The problem goes this way and the cuts go deep, this is something we really need to consider as legislators. We're dealing with people who have mental crisis on a daily basis now. I love and respect social workers but I gotta tell you, I didn't sign on to this job to be a social worker. That's not what the police are here for, not taking time to sit with an 8-year-old in the emergency room for four hours because they're out of control."
State Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, replied to Tessler's demands in that the nonprofit sector is trying to do more with less and the economic climate is a reality. State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, wished Tessler would communicate throughout the year with the legislators who aren't on health committees instead of discussing it once a year.
"I'm overwhelmed by Julie's asks and I would like to have a little more specifics in terms of the budget," Sears said. "We are always behind and we will always be behind to keep up with a 7,000 member union. The only way you're going to get the increases you're asking for is with a tax increase, and you won't get one in this current climate."
Provenza said the issue is value based and that UCS helps people who are voiceless in the community. Overall, opinions dwelled on moving toward a preventative way to put money up front instead of toward fixing problems "that go on generationally," state Rep. Steven Barry, D-Bennington-4, suggested.
"If you're not doing prevention, you're going to be in more trouble and never have enough money. Prevent the problem. Put the money into the little children," Barry said. "The money has to be front loaded to be with the moms who are having the babies prenatally and put into the family system before they get lost."
"We need to fix the system. Parents need to be educated on how to be parents and we need to make sure we have proper funding for that," Chief Doucette said. "We need to get to the root of the problem and front load the issues, we can't keep fighting from the back line."