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Paynesville Press - April 9, 2003

County hears testimony on proposed cuts

By Michael Jacobson

The Stearns County Board of Commissioners held a special meeting last month to hear from area nonprofit groups and community providers about the impact of the governor's proposed budget.

Under the governor's plan, the Stearns County Human Services Department stands to lose $1.5 million by eliminated or reduced grants; $60,000 through rate reductions; $1 million by shifted cost shares; and nearly $400,000 after a 25 percent cut to a group of grants. This comes to $2.5 million.

In addition to these cutbacks, human services will be required to absorb its proportionate share of the cuts in general state aid to Stearns County. The county stands to lose $2.2 million in aid in 2004.

For area nonprofit groups and community providers, this means the cuts will be passed to them. This will influence the amount of services the county will purchase on behalf of clients, what types of services, how much, and at what rate. A number of providers could see a four percent rate reduction directly from the state.

"We're not talking about welfare. We're talking about social services, helping those people who can't help themselves," said county adminstrator George Rindelaub. "These are not people who are moving into our community to get services. These are people who have lived here their whole lives. It's the children, the handicapped, and vulnerable adults."

State dollars for three senior care programs have been completely eliminated under the governor's plan, meaning these programs could either come to an end or be cut drastically. The Senior Companions Program would no longer be in operation after July 1, after losing nearly 50 percent of its funding.

The Foster Grandparent program projects it will lose over 25 percent of its volunteers to the budget cuts. Foster Grandparents serve as mentors, tutors, and caregivers for at-risk children and youth. Over 200 seniors volunteer between 15 and 40 hours a week in the program, with 177 of them in smaller communities throughout the county. They get paid $2.65 an hour, a paycheck that helps these seniors buy prescriptions or pay their heating bill. Seventy-five percent of these senior volunteers have low income.

The cuts mean hundreds of children each day will not get the mentoring and extra attention of these volunteer grandparents. "I've seen the impact we have on these children in school," one foster grandparent told the county board. "It's amazing to see the sparkle in their eye when they say, 'Hey grandma, I aced that test.' It's overwhelming. These cuts are going to impact the children so much. It will also impact seniors who want to do something useful in our community. We enjoy our work and we enjoy getting out there. It keeps us healthy and active."

Also on the governor's chopping block is the homework program for the Boys and Girls Club. One youth testified that the program helped him get a job, and another said the program is why he is able to be the first in his family to go to college.

The Summer Youth Program, offered through the Stearns-Benton Employment Training Council, which helps low-income kids get jobs, would also be eliminated under the governor's proposal.

Jim Forsting from the St. Cloud Hospital talked about the effects of dropping Medical Assistance and requiring those recipients to pay up to 40 percent of their income for MinnesotaCare, a subsidized state insurance program. "Many of those on medical assistance can't afford this new insurance, so they will go without. If they need care, they will go directly to the hospital and receive unsubsidized charity care," he said. This will likely lead to increased insurance costs for those that do pay for insurance, he added.

Catholic Charities told the board about numerous programs that would be hit by the budget cuts. One, the Senior Dining Program, serves 40,000 meals a year in our area.

Amy Christenson of the Independence Center, which helps the mentally handicapped find employment opportunities, talked about the importance of keeping these individuals working. "It's very important to their self-esteem. These folks are so excited about having jobs. It's one of the basic elements of our society and to take that away from them is dehumanizing the situation," said Christenson.

She also stressed the importance of having caregivers. "Imagine you're able to go to the bathroom every day. You cannot anymore because the person who takes care of you is no longer there, and now you need to wear a diaper," she said.

"These are very real cuts," said Mark Sakry, a Stearns County Commissioner. "There is a more fair way to do it. We could have more across-the-board cuts. In this proposal, some programs are being totally eliminated and others are not touched."

"The governor says they're not cutting government, that government is actually growing by six percent. He says they're only eliminating the projected 14 percent growth. From what I heard today, some places face 100 percent cuts," said Don Otte, another Stearns County Commissioner, who represents the western half of the county, including Paynesville.

County commissioners encouraged all nonprofit and community provider administrators to keep in contact with their lawmakers and to make sure their voices are heard.

"This budget destroys our whole volunteer infrastructure," said Rindelaub. "You get a huge bang for your buck with volunteers. It's incredible. This state budget proposal is dismantling that."

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