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Health and Human Services Board votes to transfer program

St. Croix County apparently will be getting out of the pre-vocational service business.

For almost 40 years, St. Croix Industries has been training and employing adults with disabilities. The program, funded mostly by the state and company contracts, has provided job opportunities and a socialization component for hundreds of clients through the years.

But in the past year or so, state reimbursement rates have dropped significantly putting St. Croix Industries' future at risk.

Thanks to a change in the region's managed care organization on Jan. 1, the county was given a year to figure out how to financially stabilize the program. Higher reimbursement rates were guaranteed through 2013.

Financial projections for the program in the coming years look bleak. Annual losses of $500,000 or more are on the horizon, according to a recent report.

At the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board meeting Monday, county officials reviewed the options available to them: 1) Cut wages and benefits in an effort to make the program self-sustaining; 2) Apply county tax dollars to support the St. Croix Industries operation; or 3) Transfer the program to another agency that would handle the various services to adults with disabilities.

In a 5-1 vote of the HHS Board, county staff members were directed to find an existing non-profit organization to take over such programs.

HHS Board member Tim Hood said transferring the program to a separate organization seemed to be the only good option for all involved.

"I want to do the right thing for the people who get the services and for the taxpayers," Hood said.

Board member Fred Yoerg said any future transfer to a non-profit would have to be planned out so that services to clients are not disrupted.

"I don't want it to look like it's callous and not well thought out," he said.

Dave Lemanski, chief executive officer of Chippewa River Industries, a similar program operating in western Wisconsin, told the board that his county went through a similar transition in 2008. Chippewa County transferred ownership of the existing program to a new non-profit organization and the transition went well, Lemanski reported.

"It's worked for us," he said.

He suggested that, if St. Croix County goes the same route, planning should begin soon and communicating with clients and their guardians is important to make things go smoothly.

Teri Buros, executive director of Southwest Family Care Alliance, said it's important that the county choose the right organization to transfer St. Croix Industries to, if that in fact occurs.

She said the key to a successful transition is to ensure that each client's services are not disrupted, and that quality programs are provided for adults with disabilities.

Buros admitted that "change is scary," but if the county works closely with families, clients, the managed care organization and the new provider, everything should turn out fine.

In response to concern that the transition could extend beyond the Jan. 1, 2014 rate adjustment deadline, Buros told the county that if progress is being made toward a transfer, Southwest Family Care Alliance would consider extending the enhanced rates for another three to six months.