PROVIDENCE - With state lawmakers scheduled to take up bills that would restore some or all of last year's cuts, advocates for those with developmental disabilities descended by the hundreds Wednesday on the Rhode Island State House. They gathered out front, they gathered in the rotunda, and they packed a House Finance Committee meeting, where family members , agency workers and agency directors told a tale of scaled-back programs, pay cuts,reduced benefits and layoffs as a result of last year's decision to cut $24 million from the developmentally disabled budget. "I'm 82 years old and worried," said Tedio Ciavarini, the father of a 50-year-old daughter with developmental disabilities. "To allow these funding cuts to continue and result in the decline of the dignity and the quality of life for the most vulnerable persons of our society, this is totally unacceptable."
"You have the power," he told the committee. "Please, we beseech you to make the right choice." Before the committee were five bills that would go to varying lengths to restore cuts — one a nonbinding resolution that calls for all the money to be restored, another that would restore at least $12 million, and others that would restore reimbursement rates for agencies that help people with developmental disabilities. Agency directors said they felt the full effect of last year's cut in October, when the state reimbursement for "direct support professionals" dropped from $12.03 to $10.66 an hour. In January, the rate rose to $10.98 an hour and on April 1 it rose again, to $11.30 an hour, under a Chafee administration effort to ease the blow from last year's cuts. But the directors said the money cut last year has not been restored; rather, the state has raised the reimbursement rate based on additional savings, beyond the $24-million cut.
As a result of that cut, said Ray Arsenault, executive director of Spurwink RI, many agencies that serve the state's 4,000 people with developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism are losing money. Arsenault said he is paying his employees $11.50 an hour, more than the reimbursement rate, and even at that rate has lost about a dozen employees who could not take what was still a pay cut, from a reimbursement rate of $14.10 an hour. "All of us are losing money," he said. "We are not going to be able to continue to operate on a deficit." At one point, committee members wanted to know how the money would be spent if the cuts were reversed. Arsenault, for one, said it would go to his employees.
The crowd began to gather outside the State House shortly after 3 p.m. By 4 p.m. there were more than 500 out front and at least another 200 in the building. There was no speaking agenda, just a prayer and the presence of the large crowd, many wearing yellow shirts and holding signs that read "Keep the "Promise" and "Stop the Cuts." "What we are trying to say is that this is the face of people with developmental disabilities, and we are here in support of the bills … that have been submitted that are calling for restoration of funds, and so people," said Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island. Martin said the group is hopeful that some if not all of the money will be restored.
"In these times we recognize everyone has to do their share, and we're willing to do that," she said. Committee members held the bills for further study. No decision is expected until after state officials get a handle on revenues and whether they are expected to continue running ahead of predictions, as they have for the fiscal year that began July 1. As of March 31 — nine months into the fiscal year — revenues were $62.4 million ahead of projections, but state officials have also said the budget deficit for the coming year is about $125 million.
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