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State cuts big blow to Dunn Center

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By The Staff

By CINDY SIMPSON

Roane Newspapers

What looked like a good Christmas present could turn out to be a lump of coal for special-needs facilities like Michael Dunn Center.

The good news was Michael Dunn officials said they might not have the 5.7 percent cuts in state fees based on their services for October-December.

But it appears the facility will be greeting the new year with a series of deeper cuts from the state.

Wade Creswell, Michael Dunn’s director of development responsibilities, explained the situation.

“We have an agreement with the state that they are going to pay a certain amount for the services we provide to our service recipients,” he said. “Based on that amount, we finalize a budget for the year.”

The center helps special-needs people with education, employment, residential needs and even health care.

But because of state cuts in the fall, they had much less money to work with.

Michael Dunn got about $30,000 less than what was budgeted for October.

Michael Dunn president Mike McElhinney said the center will be getting that money back, according to Creswell.

But the future looks bleak.

Even bigger cuts are proposed for 2008.

“In January, they are going to start with 6.1 percent cuts,” Creswell said.

McElhinney told Creswell that Division of Mental Retardation Services Deputy Commissioner Steve Norris talked about the change in plans at a meeting.

The proposed 5.7 percent cuts were originally put in effect to deal with a Division of Mental Retardation Services funding deficit.

“For this fiscal year (2007-08) DMRS budgeted $209 per day for services for Tennesseans with mental retardation,” Norris wrote in a recent state newsletter. “The current cost is $233.”

No cushion is on hand to alleviate the shortfall because the state revenue is approximately $120 million below projections, according to Norris.

The impact this will have on Michael Dunn is powerful.

“It will be extremely difficult to balance our budget,” Creswell said.

Creswell estimated that from January to June 2008, $220,000 in anticipated funding would be lost to the center.

If these cuts continued into the next fiscal year, that would be mean roughly an additional $440,000 lost for more than $600,000 in lost reve-nue from January to July 2009.

“Our average wage for direct service professionals is between $7 and $7.50 per hour,” Creswell said.

Just the $440,000 lost alone is the cost of paying 29 direct service providers, according to Creswell.

Creswell said the center hopes it will not have to lay off employees.

“We are eliminating vacant positions right now,” Creswell said.

Creswell said this issue gets more complicated because of a settlement agreement that dealt with a number of suits, including some filed by People First and the United States of America.

The main issue of the suit was to provide a certain level of service to the recipients, according to Creswell.

Creswell said some of Michael Dunn’s recipients were plaintiffs in these suits.

He believes that some of the changes the DMRS is proposing would put the state in violation of that settlement.

Besides cutting fees, Creswell said state officials are talking about contracting nursing services through TennCare instead of DMRS.

Those nurses would provide service in the home of the service recipient only.

“So someone that needs 24-hour nursing will be a prisoner in their own home,” Creswell said.

He added that cutting funding is not going to accomplish another goal set forth in the settlement, to take people off the extensive waiting list for places like the Michael Dunn Center.

“There are people on the waiting list who are sitting at home, whose family can’t afford to take care of them,” Creswell said.

Calls to Norris were unreturned by press time Friday.

A spokesman for DMRS was on vacation and unable to be reached as well.

While Michael Dunn will struggle because of the cuts, a lot of smaller agencies will do far worse, he believes.

“A lot of them will go out of business,” Creswell said. Creswell asked that people to contact state officials about the issue.

“What we need is for people to contact their legislators to let them know this is a priority in funding,” Creswell said.