More than just a job: Parents, clients on edge
Tracy Green became visibly agitated when talk of the possible closing of St. Croix Industries filled the room.
A 28-year-old woman with developmental disabilities, Green has been an employee at St. Croix Industries for seven years.
Her job entails everything from stuffing envelopes to assembling products for local businesses to placing labels on mailers.
More than the work, however, her regular shifts at the county-operated occupational training facility are a chance for Green to interact with others and enhance her self worth.
It's no wonder that a recommendation from the St. Croix Health and Human Services Board has her and others affiliated with St. Croix Industries on edge.
The HHS Board has suggested that the county end its 40-year history of direct involvement in the program for disabled adults and instead allow the service to continue under the umbrella of a private agency.
The St. Croix County Board will consider the recommendation at its June 4 meeting.
According to County Administrator Patrick Thompson, officials face a tough decision.
Projections call for St. Croix Industries to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in the coming years. The managed-care organization for the region, Southwest Family Care, will significantly cut the funding the program receives in 2014 and thus force county action.
"It's a wonderful operation and they're (St. Croix Industries) doing a great job out there," Thompson said. "So it's not an easy decision. It's a question of whether or not Southwest Family Care can find the same level of service or better to serve the clients."
Thompson said just four of 72 Wisconsin counties still operate programs similar to St. Croix Industries. The other counties have decided to contract with an outside agency, with the various managed care organizations around the state providing the funding.
Thompson said he understands the anxiety that parents and guardians are feeling as the discussion about SCI continues, but he said he expects everything will turn out fine in the end.
"Any time there is change ...there is an adjustment period and it's not easy," he said. "But Southwest Family Care has very high standards, and they are going to make sure they choose a good provider."
Even though the County Board will discuss the matter June 4, the members could decide to delay final action until a later date.
"We don't want the County Board to feel rushed in any way," he said. "There is certainly additional time available if the board wants to grapple with this some more."
The County Board also could ultimately decide to continue operating SCI, asking for budget cuts to balance the program's budget. Or they could decide to apply county tax levy dollars to help balance the budget, Thompson noted.
But if they use levy dollars to support SCI, Thompson explained, the funds will have to be taken from a different county departmental budget.
"If they make it a high priority, we'll find a way to do it," he said.
SCI Executive Director Clark Schroeder said the 40-year-old program has done a tremendous job of meeting the occupational and social interaction needs of clients.
He said the employees who work with the clients are well paid and receive a nice benefits package, but that has allowed St. Croix Industries to retain valuable people.
"No one is here just for the paycheck," he said. "They do it because it's so rewarding to work with this population. They're here for the clients."
Stability is important in a program that works with people with disabilities, Schroeder said, because long-time employees know the clients well and can deal with emotional outbursts and other behaviors in the appropriate way.
If the county-run program is transferred to a private provider, Schroeder said he's not sure how the transition would go. He noted that many clients may have a tough time with the change.
Schroeder said he, like many connected to SCI, were surprised by the sudden recommendation from the Health and Human Services Board. He said many parents think the issue is moving too quickly for all the potential options to be fully explored.
"I think it caught everybody by surprise," he said.
Still, Schroeder admitted, many hope that a final decision will be made quickly so clients, parents, guardians and employees know what to expect for the future. The worst thing for clients will be if the decision process is long and drawn out, he noted.
Whatever decision is made, Schroeder said, he will stay on the job to ensure that the transition goes well, if the county decides to get out of the business.
"No matter what happens, the world is not going to end," he said. "It will just be different."
Chris and Dave Green, town of Star Prairie, parents of Tracy Green, said they aren't comforted by assurances that their daughter's needs will be fully addressed if a new organization comes to St. Croix County.
They said Tracy has flourished in her current role at SCI and any disruption could be very difficult.
"The staff is so great here," Chris said. "They know the people here so well, and they also do all the extra stuff that makes this a special place."
Dave challenged County Board members to tour SCI prior to the June 4 vote so they see first hand what goes on there.
"I don't think half of them know what goes on here," he said.
"And I don't think they know how much this is going to affect the people who work here and the families they serve," Chris added.
They both urged county officials to step back and give all possible options a second look. Continuing SCI as it is would be the best option, they claimed, even if it means some budget cuts within the program.
Chris added that it's ironic that SCI, which was named 2012 Small Business of the Year by the New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce, could close a year later.
Kristen Ainsworth, River Falls, is guardian of Daniel, 28, who has worked at SCI for seven years.
She said any major change to the program would be tough on the young man.
"The program gives him his self worth," she said. "It gives him the capability to be civic and social."
Because SCI incorporates both work and social activities into the normal day, Ainsworth said Daniel enjoys each day.
"He has never once gotten up and said he doesn't want to go to work," she said.
Ainsworth said she understands the financial constraints facing the county, but she said there are better places to cut than a program serving 150 adults with disabilities.
She said a number of parents and guardians are expecting to attend the June 3 Health and Human Services Board meeting and the June 4 County Board meeting to express their opinions on the SCI issue.
Ainsworth said she hopes the elected officials listen well and do the right thing.