Saturday, September 30, 2023

Get Your Priorities Straight ~ Sacrifice Disabled Children for $100,000?

By Rick Racela

No one denies a huge need for the program, currently serving 69 children.
No one denies it is doing a good job.
The problem: it’s costing $100,000 a year more than it takes in, give or take a couple bucks.
 Put $100,000 in perspective.
Freeholders are offering a $124.4-million budget for this year.
They finished last year with a surplus of $36 million and will start this year with $20 million in the bank.
They have so much money, they are going to cut the tax rate by 3.5 cents.
Could they maybe find $100,000 for the Early Intervention Program?
They approved a little over $3 million in capital budget items (things that are supposed to last five years).
Could that be a source for $100,000 to keep the Early Intervention Program going for another year?
What looks like a slam dunk is a $215,237 item for new vehicles at the Prosecutor’s office. Justification for that item reads: “Ten new vehicles are required to provide emergency response capabilities to additional investigative staff.”
Well, since freeholders have cut the prosecutor’s request for 10 new investigators to three, it only makes sense to cut the vehicles, too. And use the money for the Early Intervention Program.
That’s almost too easy, making me nervous that I’m missing something.
Just in case I am, let’s look some more at the capital budget.
How about this — it includes $118,000 to fence the Road Department compound at the county airport.  The budget request notes there has  been “occasional damage to parked vehicles and  dumping of  trash and other  debris.”
This compound is a stone’s throw from the Lower Township Police Headquarters. Am I missing something?
How about finding an alternate solution, pulling out the $118,000 and giving it to Special Services to use for children from birth to age three who need special help?
Let’s say the county feels that is unreasonable. Possibly I can find a number of smaller items that, gathered together, would provide the necessary $100,000.
For example:
The capital budget includes $30,000 for furniture for the new Fare Free driver annex.  I’ll bet those drivers would be glad to give up the $30,000, and make due with some castoff furniture not being used by other departments.
Then there’s the zoo.  Of $200,000 in the capital budget there is $29,000 to refurbish select animal exhibits, $25,000 for upgrades to existing animal dens to achieve energy savings, $20,000 for “roof thatch,” and $5,000 for “privacy screening,” (the animals are embarrassed?).
That’s well over $100,000.  See how easy this is if your priorities are straight?
The freeholders have always been justly proud of their support of special education, and quick to point to its successes.  It is unthinkable that they would let this program be discontinued.
The school district administration and school board are not villains in this situation.  Who would want to change places with them as they make choices based on budgetary restraints?
But the district is open to criticism for doing all the preparation to discontinue the program privately. Parents only heard rumors last week. Freeholder Ralph Bakley, education liaison, said he learned of this after last week’s board meeting. That is unfortunate.
The school district believes — actually “hopes” is the word Superintendent Barbara Makoski used several times — that the state, which is responsible for the program, will request proposals from other agencies and the program will continue.
But, she admits, “I have no guarantees.”
Why would we gamble with the welfare of children who already have so many problems?
Special Services notes in its brochure on the Early Intervention Program, that “parents note problems first.”
The problems, it points out, include “serious health problems, communication is difficult, exhibits poor coordination and avoids or can’t play.”
 To wait until they enter the district’s pre-school handicapped program simply puts these children further behind than necessary.
When retiring Special Services Superintendent Karalee Kludzuweit presented her last budget in March, 2005, she said, “The citizens of Cape May County are fortunate to have a Board of Chosen Freeholders that supports education for everyone, including and especially, those with disabilities.  The freeholder contribution to our general fund budget ensures that high quality educational opportunities are available in Cape May County for students with the most severe learning needs.”
The Special Services general fund budget totals $12 million; its “enterprise funds” budget, in which Early Intervention appears, is almost $5 million. They’re spending $17 million and this is the place to cut?
The county share of that general fund budget is $3.43 million, an increase of only $163,397 over last year. It can do better.
Sixty-nine children and their families need our help.  Maybe slicing at the capital budget is not the way to do it.  But there has to be some way this program for our most vulnerable can be saved.

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