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Palm Coast Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2015 5 years ago

Last Step-Up program holds tough in Flagler County

Program for adults with disabilities settles for reduced services to stay open.
by: Jacque Estes Community Editor

A somber audience listened to Flagler Technical Director Kevin McCarthy as he stood before the Flagler County School Board on Tuesday, Sept. 1. What he was asking the board to approve wasn’t what he wanted, it wasn’t what anyone wanted, but it was the best option.

McCarthy once again reviewed the events that, on June 30, ended the Step-Up Program, a program that has provided services for adults with disabilities in Flagler County for the past 20 years. A program had its funding stripped by Governor Rick Scott’s veto because the legislature did not go through the correct process.

None of the 40 Step-Up programs in the state had time to prepare or react to the vetoed bill, except to shut down programs. The deleted grant funding resulted in a loss of $535,892 to Flagler County and while McCarthy and his team searched for a way to continue the program, the school board continued services through July and August.

“Two weeks ago I came before the board and presented a dismal future. We have exhausted our options,” McCarthy said. “Tonight I present a new program we are still calling Step-Up in name but the program we’ve known for 20 years does not exist.”

McCarthy listed the steps that had been taken to reduce expenses to bare bones, including cutting staff. He told the board that if there was a silver lining it would be that those employees who lost their jobs had been placed in new positions.

A fee schedule has also been implemented which will result in most clients having less time at the center. Only 26 will be able to attend five days a week, while the others will be limited to three or four days a week.

“We are down to serving 59 clients based on the survey and have a wait list of 73,” McCarthy said.

The 10-month revenue projection, September through June, of $258,330 is drastically down from the more than $700,000 (with the grant) from last year. Even with the cutbacks, expenses would be $286,775 leaving a deficit of more than $28,000.

School Superintendent Jacob Oliva told the board that passing the proposal was not a fix but it would facilitate some of the program until the end of the (fiscal) year. He also said he had been working with the county and believed a grant to absorb some of the cost may be available, and suggested fundraising efforts may help to further reduce costs.

 “I think it’s a viable option to serve as many of the folks as we can in a very limited capacity,” Oliva said. “It’s tragic what has happened to that program.”

Looking to the future, Oliva stated he was optimistic that the funding would be restored July 1, 2016. A major concern was the families who couldn’t afford to continue with the program now.

“I hope to get the clients who had to leave, back,” he said. “We plan to stay in contact with the families that we have been servicing.”

Parents and adults in the program attended the meeting, sitting quietly through the whole meeting, at times being the ones comforting the school board instead of the ones being comforted.

This is not the first time the funding has been threatened, but in the past there was time for community input, something  School Board Chairman Colleen Conklin said saved the program.

“All of you picked up the phone and made phone calls, wrote letters, and did everything you could to sound the alarm and we were able to push back a couple of years ago,” she said. “We got word back that they were flooded with calls from our families and I want to tell you how much we appreciated that.”

Emotions became evident as Conklin spoke while fighting back tears.

“Vulnerably is the word,” she said. “They (legislators) have promised they are fighting to put the money back in the budget. Hold them accountable to that promise. This affects programs across the state not just Flagler County.  I don’t think anybody liked the changes and I commend this board for holding the line and trying to find some kind of funding.”

The other Step-Up programs in the state closed when the funding was taken away.

“We are the only county who still has a school district funded Step-Up program,”  McCarthy said. “It isn’t going to be the same but we have one.”

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