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Lawmakers call for end to local cuts to health services

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By JOHN FLOWERS

VERGENNES — Local lawmakers are seeking a meeting with Gov. James Douglas and top legislative leaders to protest recent cuts in state services to Addison County, services they argue will end up costing Vermonters more than they save in the long run.

Lawmakers formally made their meeting request in a March 23 letter to Douglas, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. The letter references recent cuts — such as the closing of Middlebury’s Probation and Parole office, elimination of Addison County’s human services coordinator, and the potential scaling back of Department of Health operations — that they say could threaten the county’s statewide status as a leader in delivering service to the needy.

Addison County, the legislators noted, has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in Vermont, the highest percentage of nursing home-eligible elders choosing to stay at home, and one of the lowest crime rates.

“Having done so well with so little, it appears that Addison County will be penalized for its creativity and cost-effectiveness,” the letter, signed by the entire delegation, states.

“Overall, instead of using us as a model of how to provide better service with less, the state proposes to cut our successful services. We understand the need for reducing expenditures, but we cannot accept state proposals that will require Addison County residents to travel over an hour to the north or south for essential services that keep them healthy and working.”

Probation and Parole in February moved its Addison County-based employees to either Rutland or Burlington. The Vermont Department of Corrections, in the wake of a flood of opposition to the move, is now considering re-establishing a Probation and Parole office in Middlebury if it can find low-cost or free space.

At the same time, the Vermont Department of Health is considering cutting its Middlebury office staff by one-third (from the current nine full-time positions to six) in order to meet fiscal year 2010 budget targets recommended by the Douglas administration.

The Addison County Sheriff’s Department confirmed last week that it is having to abolish, because of a $10,000 cut through Probation and Parole, a very successful work detail program that performed important jobs for local nonprofits and municipalities.

“I think for some time, a number of us have been recognizing that Addison County has been short-changed, in budgetary and planning (resources),” Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, said of the letter.

“All of Addison County’s delegation is coming together with one voice.”

It’s a voice that has been growing as the county has seen more of its human services fall into economic jeopardy, according to Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury.

“Our sense is that it’s not just Probation and Parole and the Department of Health, but that it’s much broader than that,” said Maier, chairman of the House Health Care Committee.

Maier said the county delegation will spend the coming weeks developing a “comprehensive list” of the Addison County-based programs and services that have taken a hit, or that are in peril, as a result of recently implemented — or potential — state budget cuts.

County lawmakers hope to air their grievances before Douglas (a Middlebury Republican) and legislative leaders within a week, before work on the fiscal year 2010 budget is completed.

“I think Addison County, as a community, is coming together on this,” said Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury.

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