The Braille Monitor October 2002
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Minnesota Agency Director Dismantles Services for the Blind:The Federation Strikes Back
by Joyce Scanlan
From the Editor: In late July word spread that the funding battle for services to the blind being fought in almost every state across the country had flared up into a hot fight in Minnesota. Joyce Scanlan, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and first vice president of the NFB, describes what happened and what led up to the current conflict. Nothing is yet resolved, but everyone knows that the NFB is now on the front line. This is what Joyce says:
Joyce Scanlan takes her place in the picket line along University Avenue.
Minnesota Federationists returned from the 2002 National Convention in Louisville with more than the usual excitement about upholding our rights as first-class citizens and a superabundance of energy to stand firm against any obstacle--human or otherwise--posing a barrier to our progress. Little did we know how soon we would be called upon to engage in yet another struggle to preserve valued services provided by State Services for the Blind (SSB), our state rehabilitation agency serving the blind.
Within hours of returning to Minnesota at the end of the Convention, we began to hear of further staff and service cuts at SSB. The previous two years had been filled with staff and service reorganizations and cuts, reductions in services to the senior blind, and a steady build-up in administrative personnel at SSB; an announcement in June had already revealed that services to children at the agency would be ended. But the big news greeting us after the Convention was that thirteen staff would be laid off, five additional positions would be held vacant, and the store operated by SSB to sell white canes, Braille paper, and other products not readily available to blind people in an ordinary shopping mall would be closed as of August 1, 2002.
We learned that the Department of Economic Security (DES), in which SSB is housed, had received a budget cut of $913,000, and SSB had been forced to take $416,000 of that amount--more than 45 percent of the total. Although our anger and disappointment had been rising over a period of two years, these most recent changes at SSB went much too far. Federationists had to take action. Kind words, gentle complaints, and friendly suggestions had accomplished nothing. We Federationists had reached our limit, so we launched serious plans to address these most recent unfair actions of SSB administrators.
To understand more fully why Minnesota Federationists finally reached the breaking point, here is some background information: for many years Federationists had worked in partnership with the state rehabilitation agency serving blind people. Certainly our relationship varied with the particular SSB administrator; nevertheless, we had always come together whenever threats to services or funding surfaced, and consumers had been a welcome voice in shaping programs offered by SSB. In 1995, when one-stops became the rage in the Department of Economic Security, Richard Davis, the assistant commissioner of SSB, began to feel increased pressure from DES to become a part of the one-stops. The message seemed to be that SSB should give up its program autonomy and share its meager financial resources with the larger department.
Federationists picket Minnesota State Services for the Blind carrying their signs and shouting slogans.
Then in 1998 the Workforce Investment Act became law and brought state rehabilitation programs into the one-stop system more formally. Despite efforts of SSB officials to seek additional funding from the legislature over a period of several sessions, SSB had gone without an increase in its baseline budget for about ten years and was forced to move to an order of selection in December of 1998. This crisis finally brought attention to the financial problem, and in the governor's budget presented to the 1999 legislative session, additional funding for SSB was finally included. Federationists put great effort into supporting the SSB budget with extensive lobbying and testimony at hearings until the final vote, which resulted in an increase to SSB's biennial budget of $3,370,000, including $1,400,000 for the Communication Center, the SSB unit where textbooks are transcribed, the Radio Reading Service is operated, and several other library services are provided. We were proud of this success and looked forward to brighter days ahead.
As everyone in the country knows, in the general election of November 1998, Minnesota elected a new governor, Jesse Ventura. This also meant a new DES commissioner, Earl Wilson. Both Ventura and Wilson came from navy backgrounds. With Wilson as DES commissioner, Mr. Davis came under more and more pressure to reorganize and redesign within the department. An increased hostility toward consumers was immediately obvious, and an atmosphere of secrecy overtook the department. By January of 2000, Mr. Davis could take no more, and he resigned as assistant commissioner of SSB.
This brought Bonnie Elsey into the picture as head of SSB. She came from a career in the job service. Her jobs had been project-oriented, and she had established a reputation for ordering frequent reorganizing. Initially we hoped that Ms. Elsey might work out, because she made positive statements like "We want to increase the number of jobs for blind people," and "We want to see more blind people placed in jobs." Who would disagree with such statements? However, it soon became clear that the deed did not follow the word, and many discrepancies arose between the two.
In fact, Ms. Elsey has become known as a first-rate public relations person; she can present a most exciting report to her council, while failing to reveal all the dismantled and dumbed-down services, lowered expectations for customers, and unhappy staff created by her arrogant management decisions. She had never worked with blind people prior to coming to SSB, nor has she demonstrated any inclination to learn how to do so from her first day to the present. She hired consultants who also knew nothing about blindness to "help" her run the agency. Like her superiors, DES Commissioner Wilson and his deputy and associate deputy, Ms. Elsey is not comfortable around blind people, and she does not cooperate with consumer organizations. She is not at all subtle in her efforts to discount anything promoted by the National Federation of the Blind. In fact, she does not even work with her rehab council, appointed by the governor, though they were carefully selected and do not make waves.
Only the Federation raises concerns about Ms. Elsey's management style and treatment of blind people. Because of our public statements and newsletter articles regarding her management of SSB, Ms. Elsey decided in 2001 that she would never again meet with the elected president of the Federation's state affiliate. Yet she is a publicly-appointed official and should certainly be accountable to the public. Such arrogance is not usually tolerated for very long.
DES Commissioner Earl Wilson and his subordinates, including Ms. Elsey, adhere to a philosophy contrary to that of the National Federation of the Blind and all other national organizations dealing with blindness. They do not support the establishment of separate agencies to serve the blind population. We became aware of this difference when we received a letter dated August 31, 2000, from the DES commissioner in which he stated his views, albeit in a rather convoluted style. His letter contains the following opening sentences: "There are two serious threats to the continuous improvement of services to individuals with disabilities and workforce development in general. First, Congress, and to some degree state legislatures, have declared victory and do not see the need to sustain program funding, and secondly, categorical programs needlessly drain even more resources by operating redundant administrative systems, at the expense of service to the customer in the interest of preserving autonomy."
Minnesota statute establishes SSB as a separate unit within DES with its own budget, separate from general rehab, and the commissioner obviously disagrees with the law. That may be the root of the problem. In addition, as a navy man the commissioner is used to issuing uncontested orders, and the vocal Federation steadily interferes with the smooth implementation of his orders.
As anyone can see, it has been a stormy two years for everyone. Countless changes have come about at SSB. Counselors and other staff call the Federation and ask, "When is the Federation going to do something about this?" The fact is that we have been trying very hard to preserve relevant and meaningful services, which once were the trademark of SSB, but to little avail. Commissioner Wilson has long since ceased appearing at legislative hearings; Ms. Elsey has no qualms about speaking contrary to the truth; she claims success while services to blind people steadily deteriorate and funding rapidly disappears. She is absolutely impervious to anything not consistent with her personal plan, and anyone who attempts to be heard is met with a stone wall.
These are shrewd people without ethics and without conscience. Ms. Elsey is interested only in counting dollars, not in providing services. Some would refer to individuals with this quality as bean counters. She is expert at finding ways to shift funds to her favorite programs. Under her management administrative structure has expanded while services have been cut back. She has built up a bureaucratic empire. All this is why Federationists concluded that the time had come for concerted action.
Our goal was to draw public attention to the unfairness of SSB's budget cuts and the resulting effects on much-needed services to blind citizens. On August 1, the first day the Store was to be closed, the Federation decided to hold a picket, rally, and press conference in front of SSB's building at 2200 University Avenue West in St. Paul. Our march was scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. and continue until 4:30 p.m., when the SSB staff left the building. At 5:30 p.m. we planned to enter the building to attend the meeting of the Rehab Council on Blindness.
We set up committees to prepare chants and slogans, to build a symbol to point out our specific concerns with SSB, to prepare press materials, and to contact Federationists to guarantee the presence of a good crowd. In true Federation style our troops rose to the occasion with all due eagerness. Everyone was truly ready to engage in the battle. Clearly we had all had enough of the stonewalling, the unfairness, the rude treatment, and the loss of services everyone had worked so hard to create. Everyone responded with old-fashioned NAC-tracking spirit (toughness and creativity developed during the seventies and eighties during our annual pickets of National Accreditation Council gatherings). Many took the day off work; some could be available for only part of the day; the few who were unable to come at all volunteered to help in other ways: calling other members, making media contacts, assembling picket signs, helping with transportation so our folks could get to the rally on time. Federationists gathered from far and near. We had important work for everyone.
In our symbol we chose to emphasize the way blind people are overpowered by the DES bureaucracy. A large black box labeled in white lettering on all sides represented the Department of Economic Security. A doll dressed in professional clothing sat on the top of the box. Protruding from under the box on all four sides were hands, legs, and white canes, representing the blind people who had been stifled and crushed by the DES system. We placed the box in a conspicuous location to serve throughout the day as a graphic reminder of our struggles.
We carefully wrote press materials and faxed a news release late Wednesday afternoon, July 31, and early Thursday morning, August 1. We then made follow-up calls to learn who would be attending the press conference. Here is the Federation's news release identifying the major problems from our perspective:
National Federation of
the Blind of Minnesota
100 East Twenty-second Street, Minneapolis, MN 55404
For Immediate Release:
Contact: Joyce Scanlan
Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Blind Children Lose Services and Blind Lose Their Store as Economic Security Axes Services for the Blind.
A Demonstration and News Conference Planned for 11 a.m. Thursday August 1 at State Services for the Blind in St. Paul
Twin Cities--Blind children in Minnesota will go without services, and blind people will no longer be able to buy essential items as the Minnesota Department of Economic Security (DES) targets the blind with nearly a half million dollars in budget cuts. A demonstration and news conference will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, August 1, at State Services for the Blind, at 2200 University Avenue West in St. Paul (just off Vandalia and University).
According to Bonnie Elsey, DES assistant commissioner for Services for the Blind, the cuts resulted from a $913,000 budget reduction by DES, of which $416,000 is targeted at State Services for the Blind (SSB). "This is grossly unfair," said Joyce Scanlan, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. "State Services for the Blind has only 5 percent of the DES budget, but it took almost 50 percent of the cuts. DES is balancing its budget on the backs of the blind! They expect us to take the brunt of these cuts, while blind children go without services and the rest of us have to search the country for white canes and Braille watches."
Ms. Scanlan, who is blind, cites the $15 million budget of SSB, compared with the $300 million budget of DES. "We're being disproportionately targeted for cuts that have destroyed entire programs which serve the 40,000 blind citizens of Minnesota," she said. "Chapter 220 of the 2002 Session Law (the budget reduction bill) directs them to cut administrative costs rather than programs and services. Bonnie Elsey kept all her administrators and cut service positions instead. It also directs them to distribute the cuts across the agency without a disproportionate reduction from a single program. Instead Bonnie let SSB take almost half the cuts. How can anyone trust these people? They think they're above the law!"
Ms. Scanlan said the program and service cuts, accompanied by an administrative buildup, began when Ms. Elsey, SSB's current assistant commissioner, came on board in February 2000. Some of the service cuts during Ms. Elsey's administration included:
°Cutting staff and offices in Greater Minnesota; in St. Cloud, five positions were reduced to only one.
°Eliminating SSB's three child services counselors and its child services funding.
°Discontinuing a statewide program that taught basic living skills to blind senior citizens.
°Closing the Store, the only place in the state where blind people could purchase white canes, Braille watches, and other items essential to living independently.
°Eliminating positions in SSB's Communication Center, which tapes and Brailles books for the blind.
"Bonnie and her boss, Commissioner Earl Wilson, are interested in workforce development only," said Scanlan. "Jobs are important, but so are services to children and seniors. Since Bonnie arrived, we have seen a pattern of eliminating programs that don't provide jobs, devaluing comprehensive blindness skills training, and ignoring consumer organizations of the blind. We have told her time and time again how valuable these programs and services are, but does she listen to us? No!"
"The issues and needs of the blind are not going away," Scanlan concluded. "The state's decision not to provide services does not mean blind people will disappear or there won't be any more blindness. This isn't a choice, like buying gasoline or going to a sporting event. This is our everyday life, and we need services."
Note: The demonstration at SSB will occur from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, August 1, with a rally and press conference at 11 a.m. with speakers to address the media. Blind consumers of SSB services will also be available for comment.
The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota is the state's oldest and largest organization of blind persons. It is the voice of blind people speaking for themselves.
The entire day went very smoothly. Early in the morning rain fell, and we worried about our prospects for fair weather. However, Mother Nature was on our side, and the rain stopped exactly at ten in the morning, just as we were lining up to begin the march. We had wonderful signs with slogans visible to all vehicles passing by. Many honked their horns in support of our efforts. We had songs to sing--mostly for our own benefit, because the traffic was so loud it drowned out the words. But a rousing song is good for a Federationist's soul. We revised words to the tune of "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall." Our rendition went like this:
Ninety-nine dollars for serving the blind,
But Earl (Wilson) had different ideas;
He took one down and passed it around;
Ninety-eight dollars for serving the blind.
And on and on until there were no dollars for serving the blind. The song was done from beginning to end at least twice during the day. We were assisted at staying together by a bullhorn, which amplified the sound well enough for us to hear a strong lead singer. Here are a few other songs we enjoyed during our march:
(to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean")
Oh, Bonnie lies over the Metro,
Oh, Bonnie lies over the state.
It's time to say good-bye to Bonnie.
Let's dump her before it's too late.
Bring back, bring back
The services blind people need.
Bring back, bring back
The services blind people need.
(to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song)
B-o-n, n-i-e, E-l-s-e-y!
Who's the one that closed the Store the last day of July?
B-o-n, n-i-e, E-l-s-e-y!
Say good-bye, (Say good-bye!)
Say good-bye, (Say good-bye!)
Forever let us hold our signs up high, (high! high! high! high!)
Come along and join the song and help us say good-bye to
B-o-n, n-i-e, E-l-s-e-y!
At 11:00 a.m. the press conference began. Presentations were made by Joyce Scanlan, who outlined the purpose of the rally and march; Jennifer Dunnam, who spoke of the importance in her life of services provided by a rehab counselor when she was a small child; Steve Jacobson, the parent of two small blind children; and Michael Brands, who spoke eloquently of the injustice of the treatment blind people were experiencing at the hands of SSB. George Watson, an eighty-six-year-old retired college professor, was available for interviews as well. He had participated in the program for older blind people, which Ms. Elsey had abolished. The march was resumed as soon as the press conference ended.
Reporters kept some of us busy with many questions following the press conference. They asked appropriate questions and seemed genuinely interested in pursuing the story by interviewing others involved in the problem. The most balanced and well-documented report appeared the following morning, August 2, in the Minneapolis Star/Tribune. Here is that article:
Cuts in Services to the Blind Are Protested
by Jean Hopfensperger
Advocates for the blind charged Thursday that the state's Department of Economic Security is balancing its budget on the backs of blind Minnesotans.
State Services for the Blind, which accounts for about 5 percent of the department budget, is absorbing 45 percent of the department's budget cuts, said the National Federation of the Blind in Minnesota. Some casualties of the cuts are a store that sells merchandise for blind Minnesotans, the Dial-In News telephone service, and thirteen staff positions.
"Yes, everybody has to share the cuts," said Joyce Scanlan, president of the Federation, which held a protest in St. Paul. "But the percentage we got is way beyond reason."
The Department of Economic Security, like all state agencies, is implementing the budget cuts required by the legislature this year. It must cut $913,000, and $416,000 of that will come from services for the blind.
The department argues that, even though it is a large agency with about a $300 million annual budget, most of its funding is federal and is exempt from the budget cuts. Programs for the blind was one of the few areas that could be cut, said Bonnie Elsey, an assistant commissioner who oversees State Services for the Blind. "That's the only place we could look at," she said. "Those were the rules."
But Rep. Dan McElroy, R‑Burnsville, chairman of the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee, which oversees the department, said he wants to know if the department "looked under every other rock" for possible cuts.
"I'm concerned that, in an agency with 1,700 employees and a wide array of programs, is this an example of protecting a bureaucracy at the expense of direct services?" he said. "What about the fairly substantial departments for accounting, human resources, building management, technology--how much of those functions are allocated between state and federal funds?" he asked. "Is federal funding a reason for what's been done or an excuse for what's been done?"
That said, McElroy said he doesn't think the $416,000 cut to Services for the Blind is excessive, considering that it has a $15 million budget. He also said he is not overly concerned about the closing of the blind store, because most of those items are available in catalogs or on the Internet, he said.
Meanwhile Senator Dick Cohen, DFL‑St. Paul, chairman of the Senate budget division covering economic security, said he plans to hold hearings on the cuts later this summer.
About fifty people protested the cuts outside the offices for State Services for the Blind in St. Paul on Thursday. They are among an estimated 40,000 Minnesotans who are blind, Scanlan said. Some brought their guide dogs. Most held white canes. And nearly all carried signs with slogans such as "Cut administration, not services" and "We need service, not consultants."
The elimination of three services counselors for young children and their parents is particularly troubling, said Jennifer Dunnam, thirty-one, a University of Minnesota Braille transcriber. She said her parents tell her to this day how important it was for a counselor to come to their home when she was young and to teach them what to expect from a blind child.
"She helped us have a vision for what our life could be," Dunnam said.
The group had several other complaints:
°The Federation was not consulted or informed about the cuts, although previous administrations did.
°The budget bill encouraged agencies to cut administration, not services, but those who were laid off were service providers.
°The store for blind people, which offers some items not available elsewhere in Minnesota, was closed July 31 with less than two weeks' notice.
Elsey said the department had no choice. It had directed agencies not to cut any state programs that leveraged matching funds or program money that was transferred to other community agencies, she said. "Basically what you had left was $3.1 million of state operation money," she said. "And State Services for the Blind had $2.3 million [of it]."
Elsey said she is trying to replace some of the lost services. She hopes to replace the state store with a private vendor, and the Dial-In News program with a less expensive digital service that doesn't use human voices. She also said she is contacting philanthropic foundations for help.
"It's a temporary setback, but I hope in the long run some of the services can be restored," she said.
Because we were busy during the day and evening of August 1, we were not aware of all the media coverage given to our issue. Radio and television coverage based on our press release was carried throughout the day and evening. Photographers came to the rally and took pictures which appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Our story was also carried by the Associated Press.
When the day was over and we had a chance to sit down together and compare notes about the day's events, we were all revved up and had many stories to relate. We had been greeted by SSB staff as they came out on breaks. We had been cheered by the passing motorists sounding their horns. We had indeed brought the problems we were enduring under the current SSB administration to the public's attention. Our message had sounded the alert, which continued until August 19 when a legislative hearing took place, and the unfairness of SSB's cuts became the theme of a three-hour hearing. DES administrators admitted at the hearing that they had not even discussed with the governor's office the harmful effect the budget cuts would have on SSB so that some other arrangements might be made. We pointed out that the DES decision makers had also not come to the Federation to allow us to provide help. Previous SSB officials would have come to us for support. The concern regarding SSB's management and structure has been the topic of extensive discussion throughout the state ever since our August 1 rally.
Most of all we knew that on August 1 we had collectively acted to make a difference on behalf of our blind brothers and sisters. We had respectfully raised our voices in opposition to an oppressive administration which had shown us no respect whatsoever. We had captured public attention for an issue which will be important to blind citizens as we enter the upcoming political campaigns. Although the battle is far from over, we are sure that we will ultimately prevail, for we will remain steadfast and fight until we do win. Federationists know how to win, and we now know we have the broad support throughout the state that will ensure our final victory.
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