Social services providers and recipients plead for reprieve from proposed budget cuts


MONTPELIER -- Public testimony on budget cuts was short and intense Tuesday afternoon at the Statehouse, and overwhelmingly focused on proposed rescissions to human services programs.

Several of the 28 witnesses lamented the condensed short window between Monday afternoon, when Gov. Peter Shumlin's plan was unveiled to reduce this year's budget by $31 million, and Wednesday afternoon, when the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee intends to vote on the package.

But the standing room only crowd had largely emptied out of the hearing room after about 90 minutes of testimony, which was limited to three minutes per person.

Themes of the evening included cautions against being "penny wise and pound foolish" with short-term savings that may cause increase needs down the road. Concerns about low compensation rates for direct care providers also surfaced several times, primarily from directors of Vermont's designated agencies contracted to deliver social services. Some witnesses also urged committee members to reassess revenue sources and re-prioritize the targets for balancing the budget.

Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford and Joint Fiscal Committee chair, said in an interview after the hearing that cuts came from across state government. Human services was an inevitable part of the mix, she said.

"You can't find $31 million without going to the part of the state government where you spend the most money," Heath said. "I actually was pleased with the amount of money that the executive branch found in non-service areas."

She reminded onlookers that the committee's authority is limited to budget cuts. The Joint Fiscal Commmittee is not permitted to institute new revenue sources outside the legislative session.

This week's flurry of fiscal activity follows a downgrade to the state's revenue forecast, delivered to lawmakers in July and foreshadowed by significant shortfalls in personal income tax collections starting in April.

Heath and others, including Gov. Peter Shumlin at an unrelated press conference Monday, have said the timeframe for the rescissions is condensed because the longer they wait, the deeper the cuts would have to be to achieve the same savings in a shorter period of time.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said Monday that the committee also set the schedule in response to logistical challenges of gathering legislators during the summer months.

"We wanted to make sure all the members could be present," Kitchel said.

Several witnesses, including Ed Paquin, president of the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, asked the committee members to slow down their deliberations.

"A public hearing with a day to look over the cuts does not reflect a real desire for input from any but those who may be connected in some way with professional advocacy," Paquin said. "And even they may not have had sufficient time and opportunity to understand and assess the effects that these large changes may have."

Heath said in an interview that she's not saying more money isn't needed. "I think it's important to keep in mind that a lot of these proposed changes were things that we were adding, so it's not like decreasing funding from what they had in the previous fiscal year."

Several witnesses testified, however, that as caseloads have increased over time, the money spent on individuals has declined.

Chris Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said the state's challenge is that the need for services is outpacing the growth of revenue to pay for those services.

"That's what the state's got to grapple with," Curtis said in an interview Tuesday night. And that's his rationale for suggesting that newer programs, such as the $4.5 million Vermont Enterprise Investment Fund to incentivize businesses to remain or locate in Vermont, should be more ripe for scrutiny than established programs with proven track records. The administration has proposed trimming the fund by $250,000 as part of the rescission.

Job creation and economic development to benefit all Vermonters is the stated impetus for establishing the cache of incentive money. But Curtis said those theoretical benefits should not come before "very real people who are in very real need right now."

Julie Tessler, executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services, said the proposed $6 million in cuts to development disabilities, mental health and substance abuse programs will result in a loss of $3.4 million in federal matching funds.

"If this was economic development, we would really question giving up $3.4 million," Tessler said in testimony.

In Curtis' written statement, he said he appreciates how much of the proposed cuts are based on "savings" from planned spending that appears to be coming in under budget. "That is generally a positive step," Curtis wrote. But he and others pointed out that some of those savings - including the savings from a caseload reduction in Reach Up, the state's welfare program - were intended for other purposes.

Before adjourning in May, the Legislature approved a plan to let recipients keep more of their take-home pay and retain child care subsidies longer, starting in the summer of 2015. That plan may be jeopardized by tapping Reach Up savings now, they say.

"You're basically eating your seed corn, and it's not a good policy," said Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.

Much testimony, by a combination of social service providers, recipients and advocates, detailed the impact of long-term cost of short-term savings, particularly in the areas of development disabilities, mental health and substance abuse. More than one witness underscored Shumlin's emphasis on the latter during his State of the State speech in January.

Terry Holden, of Jeffersonville, spoke about her experiences with state support for her son Graham, diagnosed in 2004 with a "classic" case of autism. Two of her three other children also are on the autism spectrum, Holden said after her testimony, but Graham, now 13, has the most need.

In addition to her trepidation about losing some flexible family funding to help manage Graham's condition at home, Holden said she fears the long-term impacts of cuts to special education and adult service supports.

"Our kids are not going to outgrow their autism, and we [their parents] are not going to live forever," Holden said. "If funding is not put into the services they need while they're shapeable, then the state has to consider more prisons, because that's where they're going to end up when they're noncompliant and they're resistant on the public sidewalks."

Marie Zura, director of development services at the HowardCenter, said 63 percent of the agency's dollars go toward preventing crises for clients. "If you cut those dollars, the result of that is going to be a higher end cost and people going into crisis," Zura said.

She said in the case of development disability services, needs accumulate because the conditions that cause them are lifelong. "People are not rotating out," she said.

But employees are. Every designated agency director who spoke Tuesday lamented high turnover among staff and linked it to low pay, which in turn they linked to continually sub-par reimbursements from the state. The turnover eats away at resources for repeated training, and it's hard on client relationships that take time to build trust, she said.

Samantha Shoram, of Wolcott, shared her distress about staff turnover at Lamoille County Mental Health Services.

"We are losing a lot of people to work with us," Shoram said. "Some of us work. Some of us don't have voices. Some of us need this support. Some people can't walk." The staff and clients support each other like a family, she said.

"And it really hurts," she said, "that we have to go through this again and again and again."


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