Province Claws Back $6M From Agencies Helping Disabled

Some groups consider closing doors
Darcy Henton, Edmonton Journal
Published: 1:31 am, December 17, 2009

Agencies that provide services to those with disabilities say the government is trying to climb out of its deficit on the backs of the province’s most vulnerable people.

The organizations that help people with disabilities live independently in the community are balking at a move by the Stelmach government to claw back more than $6 million from them over the next three months.

The agencies say it will be impossible to make the cuts without reducing services to vulnerable Albertans — the same people Premier Ed Stelmach has vowed to protect from the impacts of the recession.

Our people are very upset, and when families receive the news they will be even more upset,” said Chrysalis CEO Lynn Groves Hautmann. “I know the majority of the agencies will simply say we need to consult with our boards and what you are asking us to do is unreasonable and we’ll be seeking legal advice.”

She said the agencies have legal contracts to provide services to people with disabilities and the Stelmach government can’t just renege on those agreements.

She also questioned why the claw-backs are coming now in the last quarter and just before Christmas when the provincial government has known for months it needed to find $430 million in savings this year.

“Talk about Scrooge,” she said.

Bruce Uditsky, CEO of the Alberta Association for Community Living, said he thinks many agencies will balk at making the cuts because of the harm it will cause.

“They believe that it would be detrimental to the people they have an obligation to provide support and assistance to, and they don’t want to be co-operating,” he said. “In effect, they’re saying the government decision is going to put people at risk and they will not co-operate with it. They are taking a stand on behalf of individuals and families.”

Wildrose Alliance deputy leader Paul Hinman said it’s shameful the Conservatives would make a move like this right before Christmas and jeopardize such vulnerable people.

“It’s just disgusting to me that they would go after these people that can’t defend themselves,” Hinman said. “If they’re going to claw back, start with their $40 million bonuses, start with their personal raises and claw all that back before they go after the most vulnerable in our society.”

Agencies in Edmonton and Calgary began receiving letters Friday outlining how much they must cut from their total budgets in the last three months of the year. They say they’ve been directed to submit plans for the cuts within five business days.

“We’re upset,” said Pat Conrad, executive director of Skill Society. “There’s no time to respond and it’s not something I can respond to without really seriously impacting on what we’re doing here.”

Paul Fujishige, Transitions Association executive director, says he doesn’t know how to cut $125,000 from his budget in three months.

“It is kind of Grinchy,” he said. “What it comes down to is cuts to direct services to people with disabilities,” he said. “The only thing you can do is cut the number of hours or cut the wages of the employees.”

Ryan Geake, whose agency Scope provides services to people with developmental and mental-health problems, says immediately cutting $200,000 from his organization will likely cost the province much more in emergency services as his agency’s clients fall through the cracks.

He says the cuts don’t fit with the premier’s vow in the throne speech to protect vulnerable people from the ravages of the recession.

“Does the premier really know these cuts are going ahead to disabled citizens who he said he would protect? I would be surprised if he does,” Geake said.

He said its time for a discussion about the kind of province Albertans want to have — but if this is it, he will be moving somewhere else.

“I think Albertans are interested in fair play and this just doesn’t seem to be fair.”

Seniors and Community Supports Minister Mary Anne Jablonski said the cuts came late because she was hoping her $602-million budget would be spared.

“We’re one of the departments that was the least impacted, but we’re still looking at two per cent,” she said. “We could not avoid going to our (persons with developmental disabilities) boards and asking them for this savings.”

Jablonski said she is asking the boards, which distribute provincial funding to the agencies, to find savings in ways that least impact the services people receive. She said she is determined to make the programs more efficient and effective so they will be sustainable into the future.

“I don’t feel like a Grinch at all,” she said, responding to her critics. “I feel like the protector.”

But Sylvia Weist, 50, who has a 28-year-old son with cerebral palsy, said the cuts will place more burden on families that are already stressed to the limit.

“It’s horrific what the families are

being asked to do and now they want more blood from us,” she said. “There is nothing more to give. People have bled. Their marriages have broken up. They’ve lost their jobs. They are at wits end.”

Groves Hautmann said agencies expect more cuts in the next budget.

“We know this isn’t just for the last quarter. There will be further cuts for 2010-11. Many agencies are looking at potentially closing their doors, and that would be pretty tragic.”

She said what the current situation is even more difficult to comprehend given that just weeks ago agencies were allotted millions to give onetime bonuses to staff — money that would have covered the amount the province now wants to claw back.

“Why would you give out that money knowing you are in a deficit situation? It is the most illogical thing I have ever heard.”

Laurie Williams, who chairs the council of service providers in Edmonton, says the 40 agencies have advised the government that the $2.8 million in cuts in this region will have a very negative impact on people with disabilities.

She said the council is meeting Tuesday to decide its next step.

© Edmonton Journal 2009

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