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State budget cuts may put vulnerable adults out of work

Angie is a Merrick client who enjoys working at Kowalski's grocery store. Her main responsibility is cleaning the coffee shop. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Tom has been working at Kowalski's for 10 years bagging groceries. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Sad, mad and lousy are just a few words used to describe how a group of local Kowalski's employees would feel if the state cut human services programs that help place Minnesotans with developmental disabilities in various jobs around the metro area.

Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing a $4.6 million cut per year, which would reduce revenues for Merrick Inc., a nonprofit company that helps place persons with disabilities in jobs, by $300,000.

"We won't have a choice but to eliminate jobs and reduce services to clients," said John Wayne Barker, executive director of Merrick.

The company gets matching funds for its expenses from the state and federal governments to help cover costs through the Medicaid program. The majority of employees are hired through partnership agreements between Merrick and the businesses.

The Kowalski crew, for example, is hired to work on a variety of tasks from cleaning the break room and coffee shop to bagging groceries. Merrick offers transportation and a job coach who works with clients.

There are 350 persons with developmental and/or physical disabilities, primarily from Washington and Ramsey counties, that work with Merrick. But that number is just a portion of the total number from all over the state.

"The issues are not just at Merrick, they're statewide," Barker said. "If the cuts are devastating enough to where the programs close, it's going to have a significant impact on the (state's) economy."

He added that solving the state's deficit is not going to work by increasing the jobless rate, especially for vulnerable adults who enjoy working and like to be productive. It would also affect their caretakers who would have to stay home and watch them.

"The domino effect is pretty quick and severe," Barker said.

Five vulnerable adults work at the Woodbury Kowalski's under the Merrick program. Two of them have been there for more than a decade.

The employees only agreed to providing their first names and were all disappointed to hear the government's proposal and the possibility they may lose their jobs.

"That would tick me off," said Tim, who helps clean the coffee shop.

"I'd feel lousy," added Angie, who said she's used to being busy since her high school days as manager of the basketball team at Pine City.

Merrick's budget stands at $7 million with $6 million coming from Medicaid and the rest from other sources. The clients often help with fundraisers, where over the past five years, $350,000 was raised annually to help bridge the gap.

"If we get cut by 4.5 percent, they're going to double that gap on us," Barker said.

Nonprofits used to receive funding just for the fact that they were nonprofits, he added.

"Over the years, it's become more expected that nonprofits are accountable for the money invested in them," Barker explained.

Rhonda Schwartz, consultant for Merrick, said putting physically and mentally disabled residents to work eliminates the possibility for institutionalizing them and helps them overcome daily challenges.

Barker agreed and said that for too many years, "we've communicated that human services programs are bad, that they're a black hole. These aren't a drain on society."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.