Burlington, VT— The end of pandemic-era funding coupled with workforce challenges and increasing demand for services has Howard Center adjusting its budget for the coming year.
“The pandemic challenged us in every corner of the organization,” shared Bob Bick, CEO. “It’s been a difficult, traumatic time for people and one result is a much higher demand for services. More people need our supports, and their needs are more acute and complex than in the past. We also have a workforce crisis and inflationary pressures to contend with. The effects of the pandemic will be with us for a long time.”
Howard Center benefitted from short-term boosts in state and federal pandemic funding that Bick says helped the agency weather what would otherwise have been a much more difficult period. “The legislature, the administration, and our donors all did their part to get us through, but now some of that funding is running out and we still have very high demand and higher costs.”
Howard Center’s new budget, which takes effect on July 1, includes a one-percent expense reduction in all agency programs and departments (staff salaries and benefits were not impacted), and reflects the difficult decision to phase out four programs. Slated to end later this year are the Autism Spectrum Program center-based services for toddlers, Intensive Family Based Services which supports families towards the goals of stabilization and reunification, a public inebriate program in St. Albans, and Howard Center’s affiliation with the closing Centerpoint program, a provider of services for teens and young adults and their families.
“It’s heartbreaking anytime we need to cut services because people depend on us,” shared Beth Holden, Chief Client Services Officer. “We’re talking with partners and helping people make a smooth transition to other providers or other Howard Center programs that will meet their needs just as well as their current services. We will work to ensure these decisions impact everyone as little as possible.”
The programs being phased out were chosen based on the availability of similar services elsewhere at Howard Center or through other community providers, the number of people served, whether Howard Center is mandated to provide the services, and the financial burden the program(s) place on the agency. In addition to helping people served by the discontinued programs find alternatives, Howard Center is offering comparable positions to affected Howard Center staff elsewhere in the agency.
“We’re keenly aware that these changes will be disruptive,” said Bick. “We have services that we’re mandated to provide, and much of our funding is restricted. It must be used for specific purposes. That left us with few good choices and the fact that other agencies are facing these similar challenges and making equally difficult decisions makes this no less painful.”
Nearly all of Howard Center’s revenue comes through Medicaid and state grants and contracts. Some programs funded this way operate at a financial loss, but the agency continues to offer them because they meet people’s needs. Historically, revenue generated by other Howard Center programs was enough to make up the difference, but with costs outpacing funding, that is no longer the case.
In addition to increasing demand for services, Howard Center has been grappling with remaining competitive with compensation and benefits in an especially tight job market in Chittenden County. The proposed budget includes an increase for staff, some of which was initiated earlier this year. Bick explained, “In the past when funding increases weren’t enough to keep up with inflation, Howard Center often provided staff with one-time payments in lieu of raises, leaving base wages considerably below market rates. It’s critical that we continue to undo that legacy and keep pace with market wages so we can compete for workers with employers like the state and hospitals.”
In spite of the high demand for services and limited resources, agency leaders remain optimistic. “Howard Center has adjusted its services before when community needs and funding sources changed, and it’s still going strong after more than 150 years,” said Meg O’Donnell, President of Howard Center’s Board of Trustees. “Howard Center is a vital resource and I know this community is going to keep supporting it. By balancing our programming with the resources entrusted to us, we can ensure Howard Center remains an active source of support in our community and will be here for another 150 years.”