Disabled funding cuts see pushback

A proposal to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding for people with developmental disabilities is being resisted by North Country lawmakers and leaders of voluntary agencies that provide services to disabled people.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed a $240 million cut to the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, which will translate to a roughly $120 million loss for private and nonprofit agencies that provide support and services for the developmentally disabled. If approved, the cuts could have a devastating impact on agencies like the Adirondack Arc and Mountain Lake Services, which have already endured painful cuts in the last several budget cycles.

“This is an outrageous hit at these agencies who do such incredible work and help so many disabled people,” Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, said Tuesday. “It’s too big a hit – totally unanticipated, all at one time.”

State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, said lawmakers in both the Assembly and the Senate are calling on Cuomo to either partially or completely restore the funding. The problem, she said, is that restoring the proposed spending cuts requires lawmakers to cut somewhere else. She said the Legislature may have to reduce proposed increases at other state agencies to make up for the potential loss.

A call to the state Division of the Budget hadn’t been returned as of Tuesday afternoon.

Little said she thinks the primary reason for the proposed cut has to do with reductions to federal Medicare and Medicaid payments to New York state.

“They’re not going to reimburse for the services to the developmentally disabled at the rate that they were reimbursing at,” she said.

Sadie Spada, CEO of Adirondack Arc, agreed.

“The feds want to reduce the Medicaid dollars that are flowing into New York, and that’s where this cut is coming from, as an attempt to start doing that,” she said. “We fear that there will be more cuts to come later.”

The Adirondack Arc, headquartered in Tupper Lake, employs about 380 people and provides services to more than 300 people with development disabilities in Franklin and Hamilton counties and parts of Essex, St. Lawrence and Clinton counties. It’s a member of NYSARC, a statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1949 that advocates for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

The Adirondack Arc supports people from birth through death with services like early intervention, occupational and physical therapy, and preschool education. The agency, which is certified by the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, also runs residential programs at group homes across the North Country. Some of those are home to up to 12 people each and must be staffed around the clock.

Spada said Cuomo has proposed a 6 percent across-the-board cut to voluntary agencies like hers. That would result in a loss of about $840,000 for the organization, she said. Two years ago, Adirondack Arc sustained a $750,000 cut.

“This 6 percent on top of that loss, now you’re starting to get into – we’re going to have to close programs and cut services,” Spada said. “The cuts we took before, we were able to go bare-bones administration, get rid of fringe benefits. Now we’re cutting into the bone.”

The spending cuts could result in job losses, Spada said, although she hopes her agency can avoid that. In the last round of cuts, the Adirondack Arc had to lay off six people, which Spada said was significant.

“None of those positions were restored,” she said. “And those were the only positions that we could cut that doesn’t cut direct support.”

Spada said if the Adirondack Arc is forced to cut direct support staff, it could lead to health and safety issues at residential facilities.

“It also means that people with behavioral challenges, there is not adequate staffing in the house to protect everybody and calm somebody down when they’re having a behavioral issue,” she said.

Martin Nephew is executive director of Mountain Lake Services, a Port Henry-based nonprofit organization that offers a wide range of services to people with developmental disabilities. Speaking at Monday’s Essex County Board of Supervisors meeting, Nephew said his agency also volunteers with local organizations like churches, nursing homes, Meals on Wheels and local fire departments.

“The contributions that people with disabilities make in their communities are substantial,” he said. “These contributions are heavily influenced by the supports and services provided by Mountain Lake Services.”

Mountain Lake Services provides support to more than 220 individuals and employs about 700 people, making it one of Essex County’s largest employers. The organization has offices in virtually every corner of the county, including Minerva, Lake Placid, Keeseville, Ticonderoga, Schroon Lake and Jay.

Nephew said Cuomo’s proposed cuts would result in a $2.3 million loss for Mountain Lake Services.

“This would directly impact the services that are provided to people with disabilities and the 75,000 direct support workers employed throughout the state,” Nephew said.

Little said in some cases, these agencies provide more cost-effective services than what the state offers.

“They actually operate their homes at a lower cost than state homes do,” she said.

Spada said Adirondack Arc’s employees make half as much as most state workers in similar positions.

“State employees doing direct care, their starting salary is more than our frontline managers make,” she said.

A starting wage for an Adirondack Arc employee is about $10.50 per hour, Spada said.

“We’re competing with McDonald’s,” she said. “But our employees are required by regulations to be certified to pass medications. They have to be CPR certified. They have to go through support training. There’s so much training and responsibilities that they have, it’s like, why would they come to work for us if they can go to McDonald’s and make the same amount of money and not be responsible for peoples’ lives?”

Agencies like the Adirondack Arc and Mountain Lake Services receive a large portion of their funding through Medicaid reimbursements. The Adirondack Arc also gets funding from the state departments of Education and Health for its preschool and early intervention programs.

“It’s all government money,” Spada said. “There is very little private money. We don’t do any fundraising, although we’re talking about it now, but I don’t know where we’re going to have the staffing to do fundraising. You can’t run these services on bake sales.”

Spada said she and other officials like Nephew plan to aggressively lobby lawmakers to restore the proposed cuts. She believes Cuomo is willing to restore the funding if the Legislature can come up with the money.

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.