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SCI clients, parents send impassioned message to county

Chris Ainsworth speaks during the public hearing before the St. Croix Health and Human Services Board and Council on Aging and Disabilities Monday, while her son Daniel awaits his turn to speak.

Tears, cheers and pleas filled the room as the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Board and Council on Aging and Disabilities met together in joint session Monday night.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the 2014 budget for all Health and Human Services programs, but the public hearing was almost completely dominated by debate about the future of St. Croix Industries, the county-run vocational program for people with disabilities.

At its May meeting, the Health and Human Services Board voted to direct administrators to begin the process of transferring the SCI program to a private agency. The St. Croix County Board was set to consider the matter at its meeting Tuesday night, June 4.

According to Fred Johnson, Health and Human Services director, declining state payments to St. Croix Industries will result in the program losing about $1.6 million over the next three years.

He said the HHS Board looked at three options for SCI's future. The county could either make cuts in the program to balance the budget, they could allocate county tax dollars to balance the books, or they could allow a private agency to take over the program.

HHS Board member Tim Hood said it's unfortunate that some people were told the county was simply closing St. Croix Industries. He said it's everyone's intention that a smooth transition to a new provider can be accomplished.

"A lot of people are upset tonight because you were given some bad information," he said.

Hood said the county is required by state statutes to balance their overall budget, and the looming deficits at SCI are cause for concern.

He said the best hope for saving the program for the disabled is by working to find a suitable agency to run it.

"We want to see that program continue," he said.

As SCI employees, parents, guardians and concerned citizens rose to speak during the hearing, it became clear that few thought it was a good idea for the county to transfer the SCI operation to someone else.

Several speakers were reduced to tears as they pleaded with those on the board.

Mae Ross said her daughter, who has Down Syndrome, would likely lose her job if a private agency were to come to St. Croix Industries. She said private firms that offer vocational services to the disabled often exclude lower-functioning people because they aren't productive enough.

She said her daughter would be devastated if she lost her connection to St. Croix Industries.

"Her work is very important to her," Ross said. "She lives to go to St. Croix Industries."

Fighting back tears, she made one last plea.

"If you have any heart ... please don't forget them,' she said,

Chris Ainsworth, among others testifying, urged the county officials to slow down the decision making process, rather than pushing for an immediate transition to a private agency.

"I want to see how we can make this work," she said.

Ainsworth's son, Daniel, who works at SCI, rose to speak as well.

"I would like St. Croix Industries to stay open," he said. "Don't close." The room erupted in applause after his statement.

Another employee, Karen Langfeldt, said the county program is more than just a job source. She said the counseling and socialization offered means a lot to people.

She suggested the county use some of its tax funds to keep SCI operating, using the familiar Robin Hood saying "take from the rich and give to the poor" in closing her statement.

Hazel Cain-Johnson urged county officials to not "slide out the back door" and get out of the business of caring for the disabled.

She suggested that the county keep SCI operating and use county tax dollars to fill the funding gap.

"This program, I think, takes precedence over any road or any administrator," she said. "This is our responsibility. These are our neighbors and our family. We need to help them."

Jim Lorenz agreed, recalling how society once treated people with disabilities by putting them in institutions and not helping them reach their full potential.

"Don't step back to the way we were 60 years ago," he said.

Former HHS Board and County Board member Buzz Marzolf recited the county's previous motto, "Service is our purpose," in speaking in favor of retaining the SCI program.

He said since the county switched to a county administrator form of government, the motto has vanished.

He urged the officials to listen to the public in this matter and "act accordingly."

Marzolf said it's important for the county to continue to "help those who can't help themselves."

In closing the meeting, SCI Director Clark Schroeder thanked the crowd for their support of the program and the dedicated employees who work there.

He added that the uncertainty about the program's future has had a negative impact on the clients and staff members.

"It's been a trying month for the staff, to say the least," he said.