By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Department of Health (DOH) would drastically scale back hours and reduce the workforce at its Middlebury district office by almost one-third under a restructuring plan designed to adhere to fiscal year 2010 state budget guidelines recommended by the Douglas administration.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Wendy Davis confirmed the tentative plans in and interview with the Addison Independent. She stressed the plans are subject to change, given the fact that the fiscal year 2010 budget is still being crafted by lawmakers.
“These are really difficult decisions,” Davis said, which center around a target of trimming 38 positions from the DOH’s workforce statewide. That number would be absorbed within the Douglas administration’s broader proposal to trim the state payroll by 320 jobs — unless, administration officials, state workers agree to a 5-percent pay cut and take on a slightly larger share of their health care premiums.
Middlebury’s DOH district office is currently staffed by 9.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, according to Moira Cook, manager of that office. The DOH cuts would result in the loss of three FTE positions from the Middlebury office, according to Cook. The casualties would include two part-time nurses; a clerical position; and Cook’s post.
Beyond the staff cuts, Davis said the administrative functions of the Middlebury district office would be consolidated with the Rutland DOH office.
Davis promised the DOH would “maintain a physical presence” in Middlebury, though she could not say whether the office would, in the long-term, remain in its present spot in the Carbro building on Exchange Street. The Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services in January negotiated a new, 18-month lease extension with J.P. Carrara & Sons for the Carbro building space, which hosts most of state government’s offices in Addison County.
Davis served notice that if the DOH’s reorganization plan is implemented, it will end the department’s current five-day-per-week schedule of services in Addison County.
“We will provide services two or three days a week in the community, and provide administrative services through Rutland or Burlington or our central offices,” Davis said. She added other DOH offices throughout the state would also share the pain.
The DOH office in Middlebury provides a variety of services, including epidemiological investigations and counsel to local school officials on diseases that must be monitored and/or contained. The DOH also dispenses vaccines (such as for chicken pox) and runs the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. The office also helps administer Medicaid funding to area schools and takes a lead role in the county’s emergency preparedness program, according to Cook.
“We are concerned about being able to maintain the level of quality services for the families we serve and the community partners we work with,” Cook said of the potential impact of the DOH restructuring cuts, which she said could take effect as soon as this June.
If the restructuring plan is implemented, the DOH would become the second state agency to substantially reduce its presence in Addison County this year. In January, the Vermont Department of Corrections closed its Probation and Parole office in Middlebury as part of series of fiscal year 2009 budget rescissions prescribed by the Douglas administration and endorsed by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee. Middlebury’s five Probation and Parole workers were reassigned to offices in Rutland and Burlington. Some of those workers now serve clients at the Addison County Courthouse two days per week.
In a related development, Vermont AHS officials were in Middlebury on Thursday explaining a proposed computer modernization of the state’s benefits delivery system. Joe Patrissi, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) economic services division, said the new computer system could allow the state to trim around 30 jobs — through attrition — by offering clients more options to access services and register for benefits (like Food Stamps) via the Internet and by telephone.
Local lawmakers and human services providers pointed to the potential DOH cuts as a further erosion of state services in Addison County, a “slippery slope” they feel could lead to additional hardships for area residents in getting needed services.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, said he is concerned not only about the potential loss of more state services in Addison County, but also about the process that has led to the proposed cuts. Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he is checking into the legality of closing district offices without full legislative approval, something he said was done in the case of the Middlebury Probation and Parole office.
“The Douglas administration appears to believe it can close down Agency of Human Service (AHS) offices,” Fisher said. “I am convinced they don’t have the (legal authority) to do that … We will work to make that clear before the Legislature adjourns.”