2017-02-15 / Front Page

Level funding in state budget a concern for local agencies

By TORY JONES

Retired teacher Joyce Sullivan of Westminster speaks about proposed “level-funding” of education, at a public information session on the governor’s proposed FY2018 state budget. — TORY JONESRetired teacher Joyce Sullivan of Westminster speaks about proposed “level-funding” of education, at a public information session on the governor’s proposed FY2018 state budget. — TORY JONESBELLOWS FALLS — About 35 citizens voiced their concerns to local legislators about “level-funding” in Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed FY2018 state budget, and made cases for continued funding in a variety of health, education and community programs on Monday night in Bellows Falls.

The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations presented the community-based public hearings on Monday, Feb. 13, hosted by Windham Antique Center.

“We wanted to be able to hear from the public,” Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, of Ludlow said. “It really matters.”

Nitka and Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Windham 3, of Bellows Falls gathered comments and feedback from the group of residents from Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Westminster, Weathersfield and surrounding areas as part of a series of public input sessions across the state. Each participant was allowed three minutes to speak, and the legislators stayed after the meeting to discuss any concerns further and answer questions.

“Level funding does not pay for cost of living increases,” said Elizabeth Stead of Putney, the town’s representative for Senior Solutions.

“It’s not fair to level-fund anything to do with old people,” she said. “Let’s get real.”

Other representatives with Senior Solutions, one of the area Agencies on Aging, also said that the agencies are lately forced to serve more people with fewer resources, and that with home care providing a superior quality of life as compared to nursing home care, it is critical to continue funding these services.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, the program would be level-funded, along with education funding and other programs.  

“We have some real challenges ahead of us,” said George Karabakakis, CEO of Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS), which partners with several other community agencies and law enforcement. “We are a real safety net for the community.”

People want to live independently, not be “warehoused,” and level-funding these types of programs would also make it difficult to continue providing electronic medical records, or ensuring competitive wages for staff, helping prevent high turnover, he said.

Joyce Sullivan of Westminster is a retired teacher. Sullivan came to the Monday night meeting to express concern about the governor’s proposal to “level-fund” education.

Sullivan said she hoped the legislative assembly will help the governor best determine where to take funds from, referring to the governor’s proposal to move funds from the state’s general education fund to other groups, including Pre-K and teacher retirement funding.

Sullivan said she thinks the state should support all aspects of the education system, and supports the governor’s attempts to look at different types of education. However, she said she is not sure the state should ask the general education fund to “level fund,” and also ask for a large amount of funding to go to other areas in education.

“Not at the expense of other groups. That’s concerning to me,” she said.

The governor is proposing to “level-fund” the state’s base appropriations at the fiscal year 2017 post-rescission level, which he said would eliminate the need for higher taxes or fees. He also recommends policy changes in the education fund, moving the state’s contribution for higher education, teachers’ normal retirement liability, and retired teachers’ health care to the education fund. The proposal asks school districts to fund school budgets at fiscal year 2017 levels, all according to Scott’s budget address on Tuesday, Jan. 24 in Montpelier.

Kristen Neuf, a police social worker based in Brattleboro for HCRS, attended the meeting and spoke to the legislators on the importance of continued financial support for the services she and others in the field provide.

“We are overstressed and underpaid,” Neuf said.

Through the work she and others in her field do, many mental health and crime-related problems have gone down, she said.

“It is the preventative approach,” she said. “It’s changed the culture in the Brattleboro Police Department.”

Linda Simoneau, a manager of residential services for HCRS, described the services as also saving money by providing step-down and crises beds for persons leaving emergency rooms.

A representative with Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), which provides services for people with low incomes in Windham and Windsor counties, discussed retaining funding for programs that help participants with building economic stability and credit, integration into the workforce, legal aid and childcare among other assistance.

Also asking for consideration were representatives with NeighborWorks, an in-house energy service with a “Heat Squad” providing low-cost energy audits.   

Small business owners and farmers who receive grants for marketing and infrastructure through Working Lands and other programs also asked that the governor consider fully funding those programs.

Robert Lanoue spoke on behalf of the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, asking that the state provide additional funding in the upcoming budget.

In past years, the sessions have taken place through interactive television, but that service was discontinued due to budget cuts, Nitka said. Since then, local representatives and senators have met with groups of constituents in person, which Nitka said has been drawing more participants than ITV sessions did. It also offers a chance for constituents to be heard without having to travel to Montpelier, Nitka said.

Legislators organize the input sessions each year to seek public input on the governor’s proposed state budget. After all participants had a chance to speak, both legislators said they would bring all concerns back to the legislature for discussion.

Nitka also mentioned the “wide variety of needs” brought forth during the public session, and pointed out the “many wonderful programs” in the area and people doing good work in those programs.

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