County questions levy for Wood Lane
Written by ALEX ASPACHER Sentinel Staff Writer
Saturday, 06 July 2013 06:12
Wood Lane's move to place a new operating levy on the November ballot was met with some skepticism and a request for additional data during a Wood County Commissioners meeting.
The 3.5-mill levy is necessary to continue operations through 2018, which have expanded to include more services to more individuals with special needs over a wider geographic area, said Superintendent Melanie Stretchbery. If approved in November, the levy would produce $9.6 million per year and cost the owner of a $150,000 home an additional $107 per year.
Wood Lane more than doubled its clients in the last dozen years since it last sought a new levy, increasing to 841 people served by 215 full-time equivalent employees in 2013 up from 362 served by 161 full-time employees in 2000. Diagnoses are also more vast, ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to autism, and individuals are living longer, requiring more medical service and physical assistance, Stretchbery said.
"Someone with (ADHD) … does not have the same level of need for support as someone who has cerebral palsy or epilepsy or Down syndrome, so we have truly had to expand the type of services that we provide and ensure that the staff are well trained to support them.
"We are basically bursting at the seams given the number of people served."
Stretchbery and fiscal director Steve Foster presented information to the commissioners showing an uncertain financial future for Wood Lane if the levy is not approved.
Reserve and stimulus funds have been depleted, and general operating fund is expected to fall to $7.1 million by the end of the year, down from $12.4 million that carried over at the end of 2012. The program has an annual operating budget of $21 million, currently supported by six continuing levies totaling 6.7 mills, though collections have been reduced to 4.7 mills.
Though state funding has fallen to less than 2 percent of Wood Lane's budget, there have been gains in federal funding, mostly in Home and Community-Based Services waivers provided to clients to pay for services here.
"We've gone after every federal dollar that we can in order to reduce the cost and burden to our local citizens," Stretchbery said, following with an outline of steps Wood Lane has taken to reduce expenses in the past.
Automatic pay increases and retirement contributions for upper-level staff were eliminated, and management positions were reduced with two fewer directors and coordinators. Wood Lane has also gone "all out" in pursuing partnerships with private providers in the area to outsource services, Stretchbery said.
Though Wood Lane representatives outlined the organization's fiscal challenges, county officials were not immediately convinced of the levy's necessity or chance to pass in November.
Commissioner Joel Kuhlman said Tuesday's meeting was a good attempt at answering voters questions, but he asked those present from Wood Lane to consider whether they could make do with a smaller levy.
"It's no secret, 3.5 (mills) really sounds like a lot, especially when we say we're collecting 4.7 right now," he said.
"There is an element of risk attached with this levy that may not be associated with a different one" of lower millage. "Even if everybody here is in agreement, we can't control whether it passes."
Wood County Treasurer Jill Engle questioned Foster about several recent fund transfers and said she thought the millage request was too high, though she noted she's not without sympathy for Wood Lane's mission, having had several family members receive services through the program.
"I just cannot see, with the balances you have, asking for 3.5 mills," Engle said. "You guys see the money flow in and it's all hunky-dory there. We're on the collections side and we're on the phones" with those who don't want higher taxes.
"As part of the budget commission, it's our responsibility to protect the taxpayers of getting millage put on that's not warranted."
Auditor Michael Sibbersen said the existing levies' 4.7 mills is actually a "blended" rate, the combination of industrial and residential property owners. The additional levy would represent a 73 percent increase for industry and 87 percent for homeowners, he said.
"That's difficult when people maybe haven't seen that kind of increase in their resources as well," Sibbersen said.
A handful of policies may need to be readdressed given Wood Lane's financial concerns, several of which Stretchbery outlined before commissioners. One would require clients to seek state and federal benefits to which they are entitled, though some still resist some forms of public assistance due to "stigma," she said.
Wood County Administrator Andrew Kalmar asked Wood Lane officials to gather more information about how many of its clients may be eligible for federal funding but do not seek it, leaving the county to pick up the tab.
"It's still the same, it's just a matter of who's paying the bill," Kalmar said.
When people choose to not apply for Medicaid, "people in the county are paying it," as opposed to "being dispersed throughout the entire United States," Kuhlman said.
Foster said it's difficult to estimate that type of cost due to such a variance in the outpatient and residential services Wood Lane provides, but he and Stretchbery offered to look more closely.
"In order for (Wood Lane) to consider the policy, it would seem to me they need to know how much that's going to save or cost," Kalmar said.
Other potential cost-saving proposals include:
• Supplemental assistance: the organization presently pays for dental and medical services not covered by Medicaid for those in homes operated by Wood Lane Residential Services.
• Employee benefits: a reduction in coverage or increased cost for spousal coverage would be possible, as well as incentives for those who use minimal sick and vacation leave.
• Establishment of a waiting list for services prioritized by need.
• Postponement of capital projects: Stretchbery said no large projects such as building additions are planned. Putting off repairs such as current replacement of the HVAC system at Wood Lane School is possible, but those projects would likely be more expensive in the future, she said.
Commissioners would need to approve the levy for the November ballot by Aug. 7 and did not vote on the matter Tuesday.