MONTPELIER -- State officials Thursday provided more details on how the governor plans to pay for an additional 18 social workers at the Department for Children and Families.
Those extra workers are part of a larger reorganization plan Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Wednesday, following the death of two toddlers, both of whom had ties to the department. The new social workers will cost $1.6 million, Shumlin said.
After the deaths of Dezirae Sheldon in February and Peighton Geraw last month, many Vermonters have called for reforms to a department they say does a poor job managing cases of reported child abuse and neglect. DCF is currently the subject of at least four investigations.
To pay for them, the state is betting on savings next year from Reach Up, a state welfare program that helps low-income Vermonters find jobs. However, that pot of money has already been earmarked.
Legislators at the last minute this session passed a bill to help ease people off Reach Up slowly, rather than having them falling off what is known as the "benefits cliff," when people find jobs or get raises and as a result lose a disproportionate amount of state aid.
Reach Up enrollment spiked during the Great Recession, but has declined recently, according to DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone. He expects it will save $1.395 million this year because of fewer participants.
There were 6,265 households in the program in fiscal year 2012, 6,513 in FY13 and 6,360 in FY14 to date, Yacovone said. His financial staff Thursday could not immediately produce totals for the amount of money spent on Reach Up benefits in those years, he said.
A January 2013 Reach Up report to the Legislature showed the number of participants increasing. Yacovone said that does not include all participants.
While the money was intended to fund the "benefits cliff" legislation, state officials said Thursday there is enough to pay for the law and the social workers. Jim Reardon, the commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management, laid out the specifics.
First, he said, the benefits cliff bill does not take effect until next year, FY 2016, which begins July 1, 2015.
By then, there should be enough Reach Up savings to cover the $1.1 million for the social workers as well as the benefits cliff bill, he said.
In addition, $500,000 to pay the social workers will come from two federal sources: Medicare dollars in a fund known as the Global Commitment Fund and a fund to support foster care, known as IV-E.
If, for some reason, the Reach Up savings do not materialize, Reardon said he will have to look for the money elsewhere in the state budget. The extra services created in the benefits cliff bill do not take effect if the savings don't happen.
Meanwhile, the Legislature decreased next year's Reach Up budget from $50.3 million to $49.3 million. Reardon said there will still be enough savings for the social workers and the Reach Up benefits.
The starting salary next year for DCF social workers will be $44,824, Yacovone said. Benefits cost approximately $20,000 each, he said.
DCF social workers earn between $20 an hour and $71,000 a year, according to VTTransparency.org, the state's online salary database.
The governor said Wednesday the social workers will be hired in phases, beginning July 1.