Tag Archives: Agency of Human Services

State of the State: Tough sledding

Governor Shumlin’s State of the State address wasn’t quite the nothing-burger you might expect from a lame duck. But if early returns are anything to go by, the actual impact of his address may be a lot closer to a nothing-burger.

There were a few notable initiatives and ideas, but most of them got slapped around almost as soon as he left the podium. And I’m not talking about the predictable Republican naysaying; I’m talking about Democratic criticism. In past years, Shumlin has had a very hard time rescuing high-profile initiatives that get off to a rocky start at the Statehouse, and that’s likely to be even more true in his lame-duck year.

Other ideas are sure to garner opposition on January 21, when the Governor delivers his final budget address. That’s when he’ll have to explain how he wants to pay for new or expanded programs that cost money. (As opposed to, say, paid sick leave, which won’t cost the government a dime.) In the past, the Legislature hasn’t reacted kindly to Shumlin’s budget-cutting suggestions (see: Earned Income Tax Credit, 2013), and he hasn’t reacted well to legislative alternatives.

We can break down the new stuff into two categories: items that will cost money, and those that won’t. At least they won’t cost the state any money.

Continue reading

Phil Scott, miracle worker

Phil Scott’s proto-campaign for governor has, so far, been a matter of personality: Phil Scott is the nice-guy leader that Vermonters have been looking for. On the issues, nothing but vague hints and bromides.

Well, he gives it another go in an essay posted on VTDigger.

Sadly, it’s kind of an incoherent mess. He calls for a moratorium on all tax and fee increases, a tight rein on state spending, and expansion of several state programs.

And he claims he can do that “without cutting off services to Vermont’s most vulnerable populations or weakening environmental protections.”

Oh, yeah?

Whatcha got in that basket, Phil? Five loaves and two fishes?

Continue reading

The Augean Stable of state government

The Agency of Human Services comes in for a lot of green-eyeshade scrutiny when budget time rolls around. With good reason; thanks to outmoded software and management, I’m sure AHS could do a better job than it does. And thanks to our jobless, middle-class-killing “recovery”, it’s coping with ever-increasing demand.

Mr. Hoffer detects an unpleasant odor. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

Mr. Hoffer detects an unpleasant odor. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

But pound-for-pound, I doubt that any part of state government can top the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for waste, futility, and inside deals.

In the latter category, we had the backroom agreement last spring that landed Lake Champlain Region Chamber of Commerce a $100,000 no-bid grant for developing business with Quebec. And now, in the second category, we have a rather devastating memo about the inadequate structure of the Vermont Training Program, which provides grants to businesses for employee training.

In his memo*, Auditor Doug Hoffer is far too politic to use the most appropriate term — “clusterf*ck.” But that’s the message. As I was reading the memo, my thought was, “Maybe we should just burn down the whole place and start from scratch.” His bullet-point highlights:

*As of this writing, not available online. But check the Auditor’s website; it should be posted soon.

— The VTP has no effective internal controls to ensure that applicants meet the various eligibility requirements or that grant funds are only used for supplemental, rather than replacement, training.

— The wage increases reported for trainees may not accurately reflect changes in hourly wages and may reflect other factors not related to VTP training.

— A substantial portion of VTP’s total resources are directed to a few large corporations year after year.

Yeesh.

Continue reading

Ending homelessness while fostering homelessness?

On Monday, Governor Shumlin announced a series of initiatives to end child and family homelessness in Vermont by the year 2020. I didn’t really give it a thought, honestly; these dates and deadlines are announced with much fanfare; but as with sports prognostications, nobody ever checks up on the outcome. Besides, Shumlin will almost certainly not be Governor when his promise comes due.

The strategy does appear well-crafted and will most likely do some good, although it’s short on resources and long on administrative rejiggering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with administrative rejiggering; it’s a good step. It just won’t build any housing.) And it’s an issue that needs addressing: 

Among families with children, homelessness is on the rise. According to annual data collected from school districts and supervisory unions by the Agency of Education, the number of homeless children in Vermont has risen 46 percent during the past five years, from 784 in 2010 to 1,145 in 2014.

So yeah, good move. But did anyone think to ask this seemingly obvious question?

How can you say you’re committed to ending family homelessness when you’re making major cuts to human services programs?

To my discredit, I didn’t think of it either. One of our white hat lobbyists raised the question in a hallway chat. (Since it wasn’t explicitly on the record, I won’t name the person. If s/he wants credit, please get in touch.)

The Governor’s budget proposed $22 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services, including $6 million for LIHEAP and $1.7 million from Reach Up. Within the strictures of his antipathy toward raising taxes, he did a decent job of spreading the pain. But still: he wants to end family homelessness, but his budget would make it harder for poor families to keep home and hearth together. Seems a bit contradictory, no?

The white hat put it in terms of a tax hike on the poor. Technically it’s not, but it is a reduction in benefits they would have otherwise gotten. It’s less money, less assistance in their pockets. (Especially with the LIHEAP cut, which rests on the iffy proposition that fuel prices will continue to be low for the next year.)

In that sense, it is indeed a tax on poverty. And it does seem at odds with the Governor’s well-publicized, well-intentioned push to end family homelessness.

The long and winding (and circular) road

It’s been a very long week at the House Appropriations Committee, which has been trying to close the remaining $18 million or so in the budget gap for Fiscal Year 2016. In today’s session, members tried everything they could think of, and then some, to balance the budget while avoiding some of the “big uglies” — the proposed cuts that nobody wanted to make.

Shall I cut to the chase? After advancing through the five stages of grief, they ended up accepting pretty much the entire list, including $6 million from LIHEAP, $2 million from a Department of Children and Families weatherization program, a $1.6 million hit to Reach Up, a million-dollar cut for the Vermont Veterans Home, a reduction in state funds for Vermont PBS, and $817,000 from Vermont Interactive Television.

This list was dubbed a “wish list” by the committee — not because they wanted to cut the items, but precisely the opposite: their wish was to avoid having to cut these items that were put on the chopping block in Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

There were a couple of adjustments. As reported in my previous post, the committee adopted Rep. Maty Hooper’s plan to phase out the state prison at Windsor and devote some of the savings to re-entry programs aimed at reducing the inmate population and avoiding the export of more inmates to out-of-state prisons. And a $500,000 cut to the judiciary system was technically made a one-time cut, with the understanding that the system will reform itself in the coming year to generate equivalent savings in future years.

All the “wish list” cuts adopted by Appropriations added up to a little over $14 million in savings, mainly from the Agency of Human Services. Which is almost inevitable; the committee was looking for cuts only in General Fund programs, which leaves out a significant share of state spending. Most General Fund spending is in Human Services, so that’s where the cuts had to come from.

Mind you, nothing was finally decided today. Some committee members still hope to restore some of the cuts, but in order to do so, they’ll have to find equivalent cuts elsewhere. (Appropriations has no authority to increase revenues; it only oversees the spending of state funds.) As they put it, “buy back” some cuts. That seems unlikely, however; at day’s end, the committee was still $1.93 million short of a balanced budget. So in order to restore any of today’s cuts, they’d have to find more than $2 million in savings elsewhere.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson looking for cuts of any size, large or small.

And they tried really hard today. Most of the committee’s Democratic majority did not want to impose Shumlin’s cuts. Committee Chair Mitzi Johnson repeatedly invited members to come up with their own substitutes. And they all looked high and low, with almost no success.

At one point, Johnson asked members to split up into “unlike pairs” to discuss the “wish list” and other possible cuts. That session lasted almost an hour, and ended with several members making cellphone calls in pursuit of information on possible savings. Items of as little as a few thousand dollars were offered.

In the end, they wound up back at the “wish list.” In the absence of any alternatives, and with guidance from House leadership that only a certain amount of new revenue would be available, the Appropriations Committee bit the bullet and tentatively approved all the cuts on the “wish list.” It also approved a couple million in additional savings that weren’t on the “wish list.”

Watching all this made me appreciate how hard it is to find savings in the budget. For all the conservatives’ cries of waste and abuse and lavish spending, Republican members had no more success than Democrats in finding fat to trim. In the end, committee members of all stripes were reluctantly united behind a budget proposal that will bring painful cuts to many areas of government. There were no easy calls.

This is an early step in the process. The budget has to get through the full House, where trouble may loom in the form of a Republican/liberal coalition that opposes the budget for very different reasons. If it gets through the House, it’ll have to make its way through the Senate’s often weird and unpredictable gauntlet. But the Appropriations Committee tried and tried and tried; and in the end, it couldn’t find more palatable alternatives to Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Lock up the wimminfolk — the gunslingers are comin’ to town.

Wild BunchTalk about your Statehouse security risks.

Anytime now, you should expect an invasion by “the most sought-after Guns for Hire,” flooding the Statehouse hallways and your TV screens with an all-out barrage of propaganda issue advocacy.

The approaching marauders hale from a D.C. PR firm with the faintly unbelievable name “Goddard Gunster.” On its home page it proudly boasts of being “the most sought-after Guns for Hire,” as Business Week once called them.

GG will work for anyone who can pay its exorbitant bills, but a frequent customer is the American Beverage Association and its fellow peddlers of sugary drinks. They’ve turned to GG whenever a beverage tax or bottle bill or ban on SuperSizing rears its ugly head — from San Francisco to Telluride to New York City to Massachusetts.

And now, after an unsuccessful effort in 2013, we’re about to see another drive for a sugared-beverage tax* in Vermont. Which means, sure as the sun comes up in the east, Goddard Gunster will be ridin’ into town, guns a-blazin’.

*Popularly called “soda tax,” but would apply to any beverage with added sugar.

In 2013, an SBT bill won approval in the House Health Care Committee, which saw it more as a public health measure than a revenue enhancer; but it failed on a 6-5 vote in the Ways and Means Committee. During the three months between the bill’s introduction and its death, Big Sugar and its retail allies spent more than $600,000 fighting the bill. That’s an astounding figure in Vermont terms.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe black-hat lobbyist Andrew McLean, who spearheaded Big Sugar’s anti-tax efforts under the Golden Dome:

MacLean concedes his clients spent “a lot of money” on a “very aggressive campaign” to halt the tax.

“I have not been involved in a campaign that’s that expensive,” he says.

This, from a guy who reps many of the biggest business and industry clients in Vermont.

And it’s sure to be even more expensive this year, because the SBT may have a better chance of passing. The reason? Vermont’s massive budget deficit, most recently estimated at $94 million.

There will be cuts to be sure; but cutting all the way to $94 million would be incredibly painful. It would, of necessity, focus primarily on the Agency of Human Services, which consumes the lion’s share of the General Fund budget. That’d be unpalatable to most lawmakers and to a liberal base already put off by Gov. Shumlin’s abandonment of single-payer health care.

So lawmakers will be looking for relatively painless ways to raise revenue. And that could carry the day for the SBT, which would raise about $35 million per year. That’s more than one-third of the budget gap taken care of right there.

The SBT does face a long uphill battle. Gov. Shumlin opposes it, although his stridency appears to be dwindling a bit. House and Senate leadership are cool to the idea, but advocates are hoping they will warm up as the budget pressure increases.

And sure as shootin’, “the most sought-after Guns for Hire” will be ready to ride into town, tossing money around like bullets in a spaghetti Western. The TV ads will be ubiquitous, touting “consumer choice” and featuring Mom ‘n Pop types worried about the tax’s impact on their little corner store. They’ll also be prominently featured in anti-SBT testimony in the Legislature — even though the big money behind the campaign will come from the beverage industry and big retail chains.

If they spent $600,000 two years ago to kill a longshot SBT bill, how much will they spend this year? Your guesses should start at a million bucks. Two mill would not surprise me.

Just think: more money than any political campaign in Vermont history, spent in a few short months over a soda tax.

This may be our first real taste of the post-Citizens United, Wild West world of unfettered money in politics.

Bureaucracy to the rescue

It’s a story languishing in the shade of Governor Shumlin’s single-payer surrender, but on Thursday the Department for Children and Families released a third report on its effectiveness. This report pretty much echoed the first two, as VTDigger’s Laura Krantz reports:

The new report grouped its findings into five categories. The key items include better training, more social workers, more transparency and a stronger focus on opiate addiction’s impact on family dynamics.

DCF head Ken Schatz said the similar conclusions of the three reports was an affirmation that “We have a good road map now to go forward.”

Well, that’s nice, but is that sufficient justification for three separate reports plus a legislative review that’s still pending? How much money did we spend on all this investigation? Why didn’t we just commission one really good and thorough report instead of a bunch? Were DCF investigations on sale at Costco?

Beyond that, two things in Krantz’ account jumped out at me. First was the fact that the DCF news conference was “attended by only three reporters.”

That’s sad, and bad. DCF was one of the year’s highest-profile issues in state government. And, to be callous about it, the story was more clickbaity than most because it involved the deaths of two toddlers. Also, the presser was held not in Montpelier, but in Williston — a hop and a skip away for Burlington-based media outlets. Like the Free Press, which I’ve been told was not in attendance. (So far, its website does not provide any coverage of the event.)

If true, that’s pretty shameful, especially for a media outlet that has beaten the drum for greater transparency at DCF. They want transparency, but they’re not going to advance the cause by, oh, sending a reporter to a significant event. Nice.

The other thing that jumped out at me was this. The “road map” that Schatz referred to included a call for “more front-line workers [and] lower case loads.”

In response, Schatz and his boss, interim Human Services Secretary Harry Chen announced that DCF would hire ten more staffers.

Social workers, right? New troops to bring down the case loads, yes?

Er, no.

They include five management positions in the economic services division, two assistant attorneys general to help district offices with child protection cases and the family services division: an assistant district director in St. Albans, a assistant for the centralized call intake unit and a policy specialist.

By my count, that’s six middle management types, two prosecutors to help with cases that have gotten so far out of hand they’re headed for the courts, and two other functionaries, neither of which are on the front lines.

Bureaucracy to the rescue! Our troops are having trouble in the trenches, but never fear — we’re beefing up the staff at headquarters.

Maybe there are excellent reasons for these particular hires, but at a time when AHS is under heavy pressure to make deep cuts, it kinda leaves me scratching my head a little.

Speaking of tight budgets, you might wonder where they’re getting the money for these positions. The not entirely convincing answer is “through anticipated savings from the state’s Reach Up program, which helps poor families.”

Hmm. At the presser, DCF officials released some downright scary numbers on how their case loads have increased over the past year. And we’ve all been told over and over again that the sluggish economic recovery, with almost all its bounty going to the top one percent, is putting the squeeze on working Vermonters. But they’re confident they can save money on Reach Up?

They’re certainly more knowledgeable than me, but I have trouble seeing it.

With all due respect to Hal Cohen…

So yesterday Governor Shumlin filled two vacancies in his cabinet. Justin Johnston was announced, in a brief flurry of bad Aussie jokes, as Jeb Spaulding’s replacement in the role of Shumlin’s Rasputin Secretary of Administration.

And Hal Cohen will become Human Services Secretary.

Justin Johnson, Gov. Shumlin, and -- barely visible in back - -Hal Cohen.

Justin Johnson, Gov. Shumlin, and — barely visible in back — Hal Cohen.

Now, I’m sure Hal Cohen is a nice guy and he’s clearly dedicated to the field of social services, having served as head of Capstone Community Action for 18 years. You don’t keep that job for that long unless you’re committed to the mission.

But is he really the best guy for the biggest agency in state government? And even worse, an agency facing an immediate mandate to cut its current-year budget by ten million bucks?

I know virtually nothing about Hal Cohen. But here are a few numbers that portray his challenge in very stark terms.

AHS: 3,500 staff. Annual budget, from general fund: nearly $600,000,000.

Capstone: 180 staff. Annual budget, $16,000,000.

In short, Hal Cohen is making a quantum leap as a manager. At a time when he will face a massive management challenge from Day One.

Cohen does bring some positive qualities to the job. He is deeply involved in delivering services to those in need, which is a very good thing. He has managed a nonprofit social services agency for a long time, and that’s a very good thing.

But he has never managed an organization anywhere near the size and complexity of AHS. When you manage a staff of 180, you do a lot of hands-on, day-to-day management. You have a personal relationship with a sizeable chunk of your employees, and you probably know them all by name.

When you manage a staff of 3,500, you’re delegating almost all of the work. You’re managing the managers — or, more likely, managing the managers’ managers. And if you spend time building personal relationships with your staff, you’re probably not doing your job.

That’s the basic challenge in making this quantum leap.

And then you add the fact that, between this year’s budget and the next, he may well be asked to make spending cuts equivalent to the entire annual budget of Capstone.  

I’m sure that if Shumlin had pulled someone out of the business world, or out of some other state agency, we’d all be howling about hiring a bean-counter who cares more about the bottom line than helping people. (For example: Johnston saying that the primary goal of the budget is “affordability.” Meaning no new taxes.) But I have to wonder if Cohen is the right person for this job at this time. And I also have to wonder, with all due respect to Hal Cohen, how many other people might have said “no” to the idea of becoming the head of an overstretched agency facing major budget cuts. It’s hard to imagine that Cohen was the first name on the list.

I hope, for the sake of Vermont’s poor, that my misgivings are proven to be groundless.

Is this the time for business as usual?

It’s an annual rite at this time of year: a changeover in the upper levels of the administration. It usually involves some key departures, a shuffling of the deck, and the elevation of those who have served in a lesser capacity.

The latter began on Wednesday for the Shumlin Administration, with promotions for press liaison Sue Allen, campaign manager Scott Coriell, and education adviser Aly Richards. Loyal servants, rewarded for their work.

But should they be?

I have nothing against these folks. As far as I know, they deserve their promotions. But a broader question is on my mind:

Praise and promotions were freely distributed when Shumlin was riding high. Should the same be true after a poor administrative year and a disastrous campaign?

Further: Are these promotions a sign that Shumlin, at some fundamental level, doesn’t get it? That it’s business as usual on the fifth floor?

The Governor has made the right noises. But the current situation calls for a lot more than that. You can say “The buck stops here” all you want, but if the buck stops and gets tossed in a drawer, it’s a meaningless statement.

After the election, I saw a gleam of hope: Shumlin does his best work in crisis, as we saw after Tropical Storm Irene. This election was the closest thing to a personal Irene for Shumlin. My hope was that he would seize the opportunity, thoroughly evaluate everything he and his people do, and boldly set a new course.

So far, given his frequent deferrals to legislative leadership and his dispensation of Jobs For The Boys (And Girls), I’m having my doubts.

In addition to a personal reckoning by Shumiln, there ought to be a personnel reckoning. During the campaign, I wrote that the continued problems of Vermont Health Connect called for some clear direction and, probably, the rolling of some heads.

In addition to Doug Racine’s, that is. Racine may have had his failings at Human Services, but it wasn’t like he got a lot of help from Shumlin. Plus, he had little to do with Vermont Health Connect. He was expendable, not because he was the biggest problem, but because he wasn’t really part of the team. Mark Larson, who was far more responsible for VHC but was clearly one of the boys, was shunted to the side but kept his title and is still drawing a salary for duties and responsibilities unknown.

Is Governor Shumlin capable of evaluating his staffers and functionaries with the cold eye of reason, and demoting or defenestrating those who’ve contributed to his administration’s malaise?

We’ll see. He promises more personnel changes to come. But I have to say I’m not optimistic. If the changes have more to do with the desires and ambitions of his staff than with a sorely-needed overhaul of the Shumlin Machine, then his third term is off to an inauspicious start.

 

If you can’t improve your product, get a better salesman

Let’s start with the thesis (for once): I still don’t understand why Doug Racine was fired. I have some guesses, but the official story doesn’t wash. 

From Governor Shumlin, we’ve heard the usual “time for a change” bullcrap. From Racine, we’ve heard that the Administration wanted more of an “ambassador,” while he’d been keeping his nose to the grindstone at the Agency of Human Services. Racine offered the following comments in a Wednesday interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition: 

They mostly focused on style. [They said it wasn’t about the troubles at the Department of Children and Familes, and never mentioned Vermont Health Connect.] I had been focused on the Agency… What they said they wanted was somebody who was going to be out there a little bit more, in front of the media, and in front of local groups and constituent groups, and just to be talking more publicly about the good work of the agency. They said I wasn’t the right person to do that.

Well gee, Doug Racine spent a lot of years in politics. I’d think he could be an effective “ambassador” if needed. And if he believed in the product. Besides, a problem with “style” doesn’t seem urgent enough to warrant the sudden and immediate dismissal of an original cabinet member. Hell, Racine cleared out his desk right after his firing: they wanted him gone, and gone NOW. They didn’t want him wiping his hard drive or stealing office supplies. 

I don’t have any inside information, but here’s what I think. The Shumlin Administration knew it would be cutting the budget, and that most of the cuts would happen at AHS. They knew the agency was already overstretched, and that Racine had long believed it was badly under-resourced. 

I look at the ratios, I look at the work they do, I talk with a lot of the workers. They’re very stressed. They’re dealing with families in exceedingly difficult situations.They need more people, there’s no question about it.

And then Racine said something I found telling: 

 I met with some of the [DCF staffers] who testified [at Tuesday’s legislative hearing], I met with them last week, and I urged them to go and tell their story to the Legislature. …I’m glad that they were there, I’m glad they testified, and I hope the Legislature was listening.

That hearing gave voice to the frustration and despair among DCF staffers. In the context of this week’s budget cuts — which Racine had to know about last week — their testimony was a big fat warning shot across the Administration’s bow. And he encouraged them to speak out. Not very ambassadorial, that. 

When Doug Racine ran for Governor in 2010, concern about Human Services was one of his top priorities. As AHS Secretary under Shumlin, he has tried to stretch the available resources as far as he could. He was a loyal soldier, trying to preserve human services programs in very tough times and not complaining in public. 

And then came another round of cuts, and the primary targets, per VTDigger, were (1) the already overextended DCF, and (2) Shumlin’s pet project for 2014: substance abuse treatment. 

Do you think that might have forced a confrontation with Racine? It looks to me like the Administration not only wanted him to swallow more bad news, but wanted him to get out in public and actively promote the budget. He could have done the former, but he couldn’t bring himself to do the latter. 

Again, no inside information, just educated inference. 

The only explanation I can think of for the timing is (1) the pending budget cuts, and (2) the election campaign. Shumlin wanted a cheerleader, and Racine wouldn’t pick up the pom-poms. 

Meanwhile, the interim AHS chief, Dr. Harry Chen, is by all accounts a good guy and an able administrator. But when I read Terri Hallenbeck’s story in the Freeploid, I saw some obvious holes in Chen’s game. First of all, he describes himself as very much a hands-on manager coming to a job where that might not be possible: 

Chen… said the management style he brings to the job includes lots of interaction with staff. 

“I wander the halls,” Chen said, acknowledging that as secretary of an agency that oversees such a vast array of services, there may be too many halls to wander in too many far-flung buildings.

And Senator Kevin Mullin pointed out that “two key areas where Chen may lack expertise the agency sorely needs is in information technology and child protection issues.” Which happen to be the two biggest challenges facing AHS. 

Dr. Chen’s interim appointment expires at the end of the year. He’s got four months to “wander the halls” and, he says, make recommendations about changes in the agency. In his first day on the job, reports Hallenbeck, he met with central office staff to give them reassurance. But he’ll have to make some tough decisions in a hurry. Sort of like his former job as an emergency room doctor: get as much information as you can as quickly as you can, and then do what you have to do. 

Might be more blood on the floor in the not too distant future. And I suspect that when Dr. Chen isn’t wandering the halls, he’ll be facing the cameras and telling the people of Vermont something that sounds a lot like this: “These are challenging times but the Agency is up to the task, and the Shumlin Administration is giving us all the resources we need.”

Rah, rah, sis boom bah.