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Lobbying the Legislature

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LARC pleads to no avail

By Jenna McKenna

Daniel Rose brought a letter he had composed to Florida’s state legislators. David Estep quietly rehearsed his statement. On the bus trip to Tallahassee last Wednesday, they and 15 other mentally handicapped clients of Levy Association for Retarded Citizens prepared themselves to go to the state capitol and remind lawmakers that the economy was hitting them harder than almost anyone in Florida.

“I’m concerned about these budget cuts,” said Estep.

“I’m worried LARC might have to close its doors.”

Indeed, with cuts to Medicaid waiver funding the last three budget cycles, LARC has gone from serving clients from 47 hours a week (nine and a half hours times five days) to 32 hours a week (eight hours times four days). When waiver tiers were instituted in October, so many clients lost funding that LARC Executive Director Betty Walker had to lay off three part-time employees, the first time she has ever had to take such a drastic step.

“This is the worst time I’ve ever seen at LARC,” Walker said.

“I’ve never had to lay anybody off before.”

The two main economic issues the agency faces are the decreasing amount of funds available for client services and the fact that Florida’s waiting list for ARC services remains frozen. LARC is paid monthly, after the fact, for hours of client services actually expended, regardless of the number of hours the day training center in Otter Creek is open.

With fewer dollars available per client, due to waiver reductions, less money is available to pay service providers. In addition, because the client waiting list has been frozen for more than two years, LARC is unable to take on more waiver clients to replace those lost either to waiver tier cuts or simply due to aging out of the system.

LARC’s youngest waiver clients have been there more than two years, since before the wait list was frozen; the oldest clients started some 30 years ago, when Walker first came to the agency.

“We’re growing old together,” she said.

When those elderly clients die, or become too old and frail to come to the center, no new clients replace them. Fewer clients receiving services means less money to pay workers who teach adult basic education, supported living and employment, and other services that are supposed to be available to mentally handicapped adults.

LARC representatives therefore went to Tallahassee with these pressures in mind, in hope that the state’s expected allotment of federal stimulus funds, as well as funds from the newly-implemented cigarette tax, might be able to help alleviate some of the pain.

Although Walker, Lilly Rooks (Levy County Commissioner and LARC board member) and Thelma McCain (mother of LARC client Harold McCain) were able to express their needs and fears to state legislators, they did not receive any hope for relief. While LARC clients mingled with clients from other ARCs in the capitol courtyard, Walker, Rooks and McCain were cordially received by Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul (R-Dist. 22) and state Senator Charlie Dean (R-Dist. 3). Both men listened courteously and sympathetically as Walker described the economic pressures crushing services to the mentally handicapped people of Levy, Gilchrist and Dixie counties, but neither voiced any optimism that state or federal funds might come LARC’s way.

?Whenever I can, I like to get down U.S. 19, you know, rather than I-10,” Cretul said.

?I like to get back in the real world.”

But beyond a wistful smile at Walker’s suggestion he visit Otter Creek and ride his motorcycle in the September Ride to Provide benefit, Cretul had no concrete assistance to offer. It was much the same in Dean’s office.

?We don’t have the sales tax money coming in,” Dean told LARC representatives.

?People don’t have the money to spend. And those that do, they’re hanging onto it. It’s a difficult situation, and it’s not going to get better. Not right now.”

Dean said that in the six years he’s been in Tallahassee, the state budget numbers have fallen by nearly $20 billion.

?That’s how short we’ve fallen,” he said.

?There’s nothing out there....and I’m not going to raise taxes.”

After speaking with Cretul and Dean, Walker advised the lawmakers that several clients were with the Florida ARC gathering in the courtyard, and were hoping to meet them. Both legislators said they hoped to meet the clients and thanked Walker for coming, but also noted that on that particular day they were beseiged by concerned constituents trying to get their attention.

“It’s a busy day out there,” said Cretul.

The LARC delegation waited a while in the capitol courtyard to see if their representatives would emerge, but they did not. On the long bus ride home, Walker expressed her gratitude for the ways Levy County continues to support LARC. The Otter Creek training center’s electric bill is paid by the county; other expenses must be covered by donations from area businesses, charitable groups and individuals. LARC has two big annual fundraisers; besides Ride to Provide, the 31st Annual Wild Hog Canoe and Kayak Race is coming up next month. Last of all, the agency operates a volunteer-run thrift store on U.S. 19 in Chiefland.

“Without the help of Levy County and our supporters, I don’t think we’d make it,” Walker said.

“We’re just so grateful.”

But Daniel Rose never did get to read anyone his letter.