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AHS Secretary Racine hears from county’s social service providers

BRATTLEBORO—“I’m concerned,” Agency of Human Services (AHS) Secretary Doug Racine said about budget cuts facing the agency.

AHS provides numerous services for vulnerable Vermonters, he said, and it is struggling to keep up with increased demand for services and fewer resources to deliver them.

Racine visited Windham County last Thursday to connect with AHS staff members and to hear their thoughts on the issues facing the agency.

Staff members told him that some of the agency’s computer systems are “antiquated.” One staff member said people preferred to spend extra time compiling reports manually to avoid the computer system.

That’s an example of “systems-wasting resources,” said Racine.

Over the past year, AHS has upgraded its technology, and created online application processes and the Vermont-211 information line, said Sadie Fischesser, AHS field director for the Bennington and Brattleboro districts.

Although staff members report lower wait times for residents applying for services, Fischesser said that the agency still needs better technology integration.

Racine said the agency will continue to find ways to integrate the services it offers to help streamline their delivery.

According to Racine, the toughest cut to the agency’s budget was to the designated agencies that serve people with mental illness or disabilities.

Gov. Peter Shumlin had asked for a 5 percent cut, said Racine. After some creative shifting, the agency cut the designated agencies’ bottom line by 2.5 percent.

AHS cut from its budget $35 million to $40 million, said Fischesser, and it tried to spread cuts evenly across Vermont’s 14 counties.

'Not getting any easier'

The Brattleboro area has a “robust human services network,” noted Fischesser, citing AHS' work with numerous community partners in the area, such as Youth Services.

She said the philosophy in Vermont is that community-based services provide the most effective delivery of services to meet residents’ needs.

At the same time, Fischesser said, clients seeking agency assistance are showing up with more complex needs.

“It’s not getting any easier for the people out there we’re trying to provide services for,” she said, adding that AHS will have to come up with innovative responses.

Fortunately, Racine said, Vermont is weathering the budgetary storm better than other states.

“We do things differently [in Vermont],” Racine said, pointing out that Vermonters work to seek the “common ground” on issues, and to compromise rather than lock themselves into an “inflexible position.”

But Racine said he is worried about federal budget cuts.

He said that AHS has tried to anticipate those cuts and put funds aside, but that there might not be enough to make up for proposed reductions in federal health care and education spending, and a 50 percent cut to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

'A little more isolating'

After over 20 years in the Legislature, Racine moved to the helm of AHS earlier this year. He described the executive branch as “a little more isolating,” but he said that he is “honored to fill this role.”

Racine first served in the Legislature beginning in 1982 as senator for Chittenden County. He became lieutenant governor in 1996 and served in that post for three terms.

He ran for governor in 2002, losing to Republican Jim Douglas. He narrowly lost the Gubernatorial Democratic primary to Shumlin in 2010.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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