Public weighs in on Vermont budget priorities

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MONTPELIER >> Service providers and beneficiaries of Vermont mental health programs, services for the elderly and others went on the Internet Monday to tell state officials that the state must spend more to help those in need.

Representatives of the regional mental health centers that provide much of the outpatient psychiatric and substance abuse counseling in the state said tight budgets result in low staff salaries, prompting staff to leave for better paying school-based and other jobs.

"The long-standing lack of regular cost of living increases and funding is reaching a crisis point," said Jena Trombly, human services director of the Randolph-based Clara Martin Center.

The result is a 27.5 percent turnover rate at the regional agencies during the past three years, hurting the services they can provide their clients, Trombly said.

Without addressing the problem "we fully expect an ongoing erosion of our workforce and the consequences will be increasing incarceration rates, increased substance abuse and addiction, and a rise in referrals for hospitalization," Trombly said.

Budget writers in the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin held two public sessions Monday to allow people to speak out as officials draft the fiscal 2017 budget that Shumlin will present to lawmakers in January. They conducted them by Internet-based seminars called webinars, which drew a complaint from at least one speaker that elderly service recipients might be barred from participating by a lack of computer skills.

Vermont is facing another in a string of budget cycles in which projected expenditures outpace revenues, leaving lawmakers to struggle to close the gap with service cuts and some tax increases. The gap between projected revenues and expenditures for fiscal 2017 is nearly $70 million.

Most of the concerns voiced at Monday's session on human services followed a familiar pattern: Cuts and level funding for many human services programs in recent years have left providers scrambling to respond to growing caseloads, speakers said.

Several of the speakers were service recipients, including members of Green Mountain Self Advocates, a group run by people with developmental disabilities.

"I am concerned about the level funding of the state budget because every year in developmental services new people come in. And when that happens existing people need to take a cut in order to pay for the new people," said GMSA's Nicole LeBlanc. "There have been six cuts since 2006. Every time there's a budget shortfall, people getting services have to make a sacrifice."


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