For most parents, the birth of a child is a happy event. But for parents of children born with Down's syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy - or any of a host of other mental or developmental disabilities - it can be a time of heartbreak. One of the November ballot issues to be decided by Cuyahoga County voters is a tax levy to support services for people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. At 3.9 mills, it's a slight increase over previous years. While there's a tradition of strong county support for mental retardation issues, officials are worried about what might happen if the levy fails. Advocates claim a lack of expansion in state funding over the last decade - coupled with a growing need for services - has created a statewide funding crisis for local programs. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- Since 1967, the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities has provided services for people with disabilities and their families. This year at the William Day Early Childhood Center in inner city Cleveland, more than 1,200 pre-school children will participate in the county's early intervention program. Principle Marge Welsh says here, kids learn skills that help prepare many of them for regular public school special education classes. In a motor skills classroom for children with more severe disabilities, 5-year-old Carmella - who has cerebral palsy - is getting ready for her morning exercise.
Superintendent Mike Donzella says in recent years, the outlook for kids like Carmella has vastly improved. But while these kids are getting the help they need, he says new initiatives have identified many others who are not. Donzella would like to expand a number of services, but there's a catch. First the county has to pass a 3.9-mill tax levy.
Mike Donzella- The program is supported by local taxes. About 60% of our revenues are local tax dollars. This next year, we'll spend about $160 million and about $90 million or so will come from the new tax levy. Without this tax levy, we're really going to be out of business.
KS- The levy includes 3 mills of renewal tax and 0.9 mills of new tax. In addition to local support, each of Ohio's 88 county MRDD programs also receive funding from state and federal governments, primarily in the form of Medicaid dollars for housing. Cuyahoga County currently spends $50 million a year for community-based assisted housing. Over the next five years, Donzella says he expects that number to reach $80 or $90 million.
MD- And the crisis right now we're facing is that we here in Cuyahoga County need or are planning to put in place an additional 500 beds. The need statewide, however, is for 20,000 beds.
KS- To cover that cost, counties have struggled to raise more money. Gary Tonk heads Arc of Ohio, part of a national advocacy group for people with MRDD. He charges that the state isn't paying its fair share.
Gary Tonk- What happens to the system if that big group of individuals needs services tomorrow, are we going to be able to meet that need? In the last decade, the state has just not kept pace at all with their share of the pot.
KS- Ohio Department of MRDD spokesman Robert Jennings says last year the state spent over $800 million to provide services to more than 57,000 people. He believes state funding hasn't kept pace with local needs, because legislators haven't seen funding for MRDD programs as a top priority.
Robert Jennings- Taft's administration has already addressed some of those issues through its Ohio Access policy, which is looking at the needs of people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities and getting public input into what types of services they'd like to see and how the state can be more responsive.
KS- But Gary Tonk of Arc says the current administration has inherited an even larger problem.
GT- Nationwide we knew that people were waiting, but we really had no idea of how many people were waiting for services. And we started adding up the numbers from across the nation and the most glaring thing that came to us was that Ohio was only one of two states - the other being West Virginia - that didn't have a state waiting list.
KS- Tonk says last summer the federal Health Care Financing Administration looked into Ohio's MRDD spending and made two recommendations.
GT- They pointed out, first of all, you need a statewide waiting list. And second, that waiting list needed to be moving at a reasonable pace. The Supreme Court has said 90 days is the reasonable period of time to wait. And we have people we know on Ohio's waiting list that have been waiting for ten years.
KS- Tonk says lawsuits have been filed over waiting lists in twelve other states. While he doesn't expect that to happen in Ohio, Tonk says he and other advocates are banding together to get their message across to state officials. A few weeks ago, Arc and other groups rallied in Columbus to present the governor with their own budget for MRDD funding. In addition to increased state funding for housing, Tonk says the plan calls for money to correct regional inequities, increase worker salaries, and provide family support.
But until legislators vote for more state funding, counties will continue to need local support. And this November, Cuyahoga County officials will be counting on voters to cast their ballots in favor of Issue 2. Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.