AUGUSTA, Maine — The state says cost overruns and an uncertain federal funding situation have helped cause a $400,000 shortfall in the agency providing services to 1,100 Mainers who are blind and visually impaired.
It has led the Maine Department of Labor to freeze 4½ positions, including three administrative positions, in its Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has a $4.7 million annual budget and provides job training, life skills and educational programs.
Advocates are concerned with the plan.
The shortfall — for the federal fiscal year ending in September 2016 — is because of circumstances discovered in June, including cost overruns in service delivery, the effects of federal budget cuts and rising personnel costs, according to Julie Rabinowitz, a Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman.
Also, she said an upcoming change in federal law that will make agencies reserve 15 percent of federal vocational rehabilitation funds on pre-employment services for those ages 14 through 24 could make these services harder to fund in the future.
Maine has had only 14 people in that program in the past year, and previously, that money was available to fund services for older Mainers, Rabinowitz said. Now, she said, the state is examining potential funding to fill that gap, but it froze the administrative positions out of caution and services shouldn’t be affected.
“The positions have not gone away, and if the fiscal situation isn’t as dire as we’re preparing for, we can bring those back,” Rabinowitz said.
But it has led to heartburn among advocates: The governor-appointed State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which advises the division, sent an Oct. 2 letter to Gov. Paul LePage, saying “extraordinary efforts are underway to dismantle” the division and potentially consolidate functions with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides job services to people with other types of disabilities.
The letter from Kathy Despres, the council chairwoman who works as program director for C.A.R.E.S. Inc. in Winthrop, said the department made staffing freezes without consulting the council and should halt its effort.
Rabinowitz said no merger is planned but acknowledged that it could look like that from the outside. John McMahon, director of the division, has been placed on leave, and Karen Fraser, interim director of the bureau that contains the two divisions, has been put in charge.
However, Rabinowitz said “nothing’s off the table” to fund services over the long term, including potential consolidation. She said the council will be consulted as that plan is crafted.
But Lynn Merrill of Augusta, who is blind and serves on the council, said consolidation would be bad and that the loss of specialization “could have a significant impact on this population.”
“You can’t put this into a general program,” she said. “One of the primary differences between other people with disabilities and the blind is that blind rehabilitation is not covered under the medical model.”