State budget fiasco strains nonprofits

The lack of a state budget for fiscal year 2018 (FY18) and the implementation of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Resource Allocation Plan are having negative impacts on nonprofits, including those that serve Wilton residents.

Malloy implemented the Resource Allocation Plan via executive order when the Connecticut General Assembly failed to adopt a budget by July 1.

The plan allocates funding for the first quarter of the fiscal year, July 1 through Sept. 30, and drastically cuts expenditures in an effort to keep the state’s finances in balance — including more than $44 million in funding from community supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are already receiving services in the community.

One of the agencies affected by the governor’s plan is STAR, Inc., Lighting the Way — a non-profit organization that serves individuals of all ages who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, people on the autism spectrum and other birth-related challenges, and also provides support services to their families. The agency is based in Norwalk and serves Darien, New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport, Weston and Wilton.

“Living within the governor’s Resource Allocation Plan is challenging at best,” STAR Executive Director Katie Banzhaf told The Bulletin.

Not only does it affect STAR’s employees, she said, but it also affect families and other organizations.

“The first most critical thing that’s happening is high school graduates who have intellectual and developmental disabilities — who we had been working with the schools to transition into adult life and employment — have no funding,” said Banzhaf.

With no funding to support agencies like STAR, Banzhaf said, these young adults are either “sitting at home, losing ground” or their families are having to pay for private services.

“I think, to me, that is the most dramatic and tragic of the many cuts,” said Banzhaf, who has been with STAR for 34 years and doesn’t remember there ever being a year like this.

“We’ve had budget cuts; we’ve seen delays in budget or implementation, and there have been a couple of years where funding for high school graduates [has been delayed], but we’ve never ever had a year where families are basically told, ‘Your child is not, will not be funded.’”

Furlough days

Another challenge STAR faces, said Banzhaf, are the furlough days imposed by the governor.

On July 26, STAR was forced to close due to the lack of a FY18 state budget. The one-day closure was the first of six ordered by the governor. The others will occur on the last Wednesday of every month for the next five months.

“The last Wednesday in July, we had to close our programs for the day because all the staff were furloughed for the day,” said Banzhaf.

The furlough days affect families that depend on STAR’s day programs, said Banzhaf, because many are forced to vacation days from work or take a day without pay in order to stay home and supervise their children.

Banzhaf said STAR’s day programs support individuals with disabilities who do not yet have “competitive jobs” by finding volunteer work that helps them learn “work-like activities” and skills.

The organizations with which STAR is involved are also affected by the furlough days.

For example, Banzhaf said, Meals on Wheels — which relies on STAR volunteers to cover five delivery routes and bring meals to more than 50 residents each Wednesday — had to find other volunteers on the July 26 furlough day.

“We had to call them up and say, ‘We’re sorry. We’re not going to be there,’” said Banzhaf.

Each week, STAR volunteers help sort and hang up clothing at Person-to-Person (P2P) — another agency affected by the governor’s Resource Allocation Plan. On the July 26 furlough day, P2P had to find volunteers at the last minute.

“It was not the easiest thing to do,” said P2P Executive Director Ceci Maher, “but we had to stay open, so we had staff helping out in the clothing center while still helping clients.”

On top of disrupting STAR’s day programs, Banzhaf said, the furlough days also force her to find staff for individuals living in group homes. This, she said, leaves her with two options: having management staff provide coverage or incurring overtime without “any reimbursement.”

To add insult to injury, she said, STAR serves 25 to 30 people living in the state-run regional center in Norwalk, which have been untouched in the Resource Allocation Plan and where state workers are being paid overtime “at a higher salary” to provide care on the furlough days.

“I’m having a hard time seeing where the savings is,” said Banzhaf.

Financial impact

If the state doesn’t have FY18 budget by October or November, Banzhaf said, STAR is looking at a 10% cut to its day programs, in addition to the furlough days, and up to 18% cuts to its residential programs.

“For STAR, our total budget is about $12.5 million budget and when I calculate the losses of revenue under this plan, it’s about $1.3 million,” she said, “so where do we begin to cut?”

While STAR is looking at “every possibility,” said Banzhaf, “our rates have not gone up in like 12 years.”

“There hasn’t been cost-of-living increases for staff from the state, so there’s only so much you can or want to do on the backs of employees,” she said

“We’re looking at every possible thing but, quite honestly, most of us in the non-profit community have been making cuts through the last five, six, 10 years. We’re reduced our number of holidays; we’ve reduced our benefit packages — we’ve done all those things already. There isn’t much room to cut without actually eliminating programs, and that’s the frightening thing.”

Maher told The Bulletin that all funding for P2P’s assistance programs has been cut.

“That was about $120,000,” she said, “and we’ve been told we will not be getting that funding.”

P2P is one of the “very few agencies that have the capacity to provide financial assistance,” said Maher, and “any reduction in our funding will impact the number of people we serve.”

Based in Darien, P2P provides emergency assistance for basic needs like food, clothing and rent, as well as support to individuals and families as they move toward financial stability.

“We’ve been told not to anticipate getting any funding — and we’re planning on not receiving any funding,” said Maher.

“We’d be absolutely thrilled if we received some funding, but we’re expecting the worst.”

Banzhaf said she’s been talking to legislators like State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Sen. Bob Duff (D-25)  to “try and get a sense of how close they’re getting — or if they’re getting close — to coming to an agreement,” but still doesn’t know what to expect.

“I honestly did not think we would get into August without a budget, so I’m kind of like, ‘OK, we really have to prepare for this plan going longer than we hoped,’” she said.

“I think whatever budget is passed, we will have some across-the-board cuts, but I don’t think they’ll be anywhere near as severe as 10% to 18% — we’re hoping, anyway.”

Banzhaf said she urges legislators to “come up with a bipartisan agreement [on the FY18 budget] that will support people with disabilities” and hopes there will be one before the next furlough day in August.