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CSAC, other local agencies and programs hit hard by state budget cuts

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — The Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) will need to trim its budget by around $500,000 before the end of June as a result of fiscal year 2009 state budget rescissions, including a new round amounting to $19.7 million announced by the administration of Gov. James Douglas on Monday.

State officials warned that additional, deeper cuts are undoubtedly on the horizon for this fiscal year and next.

Locally, the latest cuts will not only hit CSAC but will also mean closure of the Addison County Probation and Parole field office and elimination of state funding for the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, though that organization is expected to weather the storm thanks to a $1 million gift it received earlier this year.

State lawmakers were still sorting out the impact of the latest batch of cuts as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday. Casualties included:

•  50 state government positions statewide (15 of which are currently vacant). Affected agencies include Natural Resources, Buildings and General Services, Secretary of State’s office, Agriculture, Corrections, Governor’s office, Treasurer’s office and Veterans’ Affairs.

•  Pay cuts of 5 percent for non-union state workers now earning more than $60,000 per year.

•  A $766,000 reduction for the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., in second-semester college tuition grants.

•  A 4-percent cut for the state’s mental health agencies, including CSAC. Elimination of chiropractic service coverage for Medicaid recipients.

•  Elimination of cervical cancer vaccines for adult women.

•  Closure of state roadside rest areas (none in Addison County).

The rescissions also mean Vermonters and visitors will be seeing some higher fees for services, such as admission to state parks.

Local lawmakers warned that the news is only going to get worse. The Douglas administration had hoped to agree with representatives of the General Assembly on $37 million in cuts. And while the two sides did not go that far, lawmakers said they will have to bridge that gap once the full Legislature reconvenes next month for the start of the 2009 session.

“I think we have to say the state is in an incredibly difficult situation,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sharpe noted forecasts suggesting the state could be facing a $66 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year (which ends June 30, 2009) and as much as a $150 million in red ink for fiscal year 2010.

“Those are staggering numbers; that’s 10 percent of our budget,” said Sharpe. “We have to make some painful cuts.”

He acknowledged the difficult task the administration had in looking for cuts.

“I think they did the right thing looking at the big numbers,” Sharpe said, though he is concerned about the extent to which childhood development and education support programs were placed on the chopping block.

“They are the most important asset we have,” he said of the state’s youth.

“To cut these kinds of things before the public relations slots gives me pause,” he said, alluding to the spokespeople that Douglas has brought in during recent years to handle outreach and media inquiries on behalf of state agencies.

Douglas, during a phone interview on Monday, noted two of the now-vacant public relations positions (with the Department of Public Safety and Agency of Human Services) are to be left unfilled as part of the $19.7 million in rescissions.

The governor reiterated his frustration that the administration and lawmakers have agreed on only $19.7 million in reductions thus far. He noted the longer more cuts are put off, the deeper they will have to become, because they will need to be in effect for a more compressed period of time.

“I’m disappointed we haven’t made more progress,” said Douglas, a Middlebury Republican.

“I understand that some legislators were reluctant to do more (than $19.7 million in cuts) because they wanted the entire Legislature involved,” he added. “I understand that, but the clock is ticking.”

While Douglas has thus far steered clear of recommending cuts to some programs — such as state police services — he said he recognizes “everything has to be on the table — even priorities of mine.”

Sharpe believes that “everything” should include consideration of raising taxes — something he noted the late Gov. Richard Snelling proposed during the early 1990s when the state also faced a financial crisis.

“It bothers me that we aren’t looking at the revenue side at all,” Sharpe said.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said she expects the cuts announced on Monday will have consequences for a lot of Vermonters. That said, she believes the $19.7 million in reductions are not enough to trigger wholesale changes in state policy, and she is pleased the full House and Senate will now soon have an opportunity to weigh in on any further cuts to be made.

“I think (the cuts) need to be reviewed by more than a handful of people,” said Ayer, vice chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee and the current Senate majority whip.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, voiced frustration with what he said was a lack of details to go along with the list of cuts provided by the administration.

“The documents tell you virtually nothing — where the positions are going to be cut and what doors are going to be shut,” Jewett said of the $19.7 list, which can be accessed at http://aoa.vermont.gov/. “We have not achieved transparency.”

Meanwhile, CSAC Executive Director Robert Thorn and the heads of other agencies affected by the cuts are determining what services they will have to pare back in order to adjust to their new bottom lines.

“It is unclear what part of our budget is going to be affected,” Thorn said.

 

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