A friend to the handicapped

The problem with sheltered work activity centers designed to employ Iowa mentally handicapped adults are as complicated as they can be. So it is no easy task to help them in their hour of need, as new rules governing mental health care and costs find their way to application. In the case of Genesis Development of Storm Lake, it appears that the days of sheltered workshop may end come July. That’s when the work activity center plans to quit redeeming cans and bottles. Clients instead are being directed to jobs with other employers. Not all clients will be able to work outside of Genesis. We are not certain what becomes of them.

First we called Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, who chairs the Iowa Senate Human Resources Committee. She is aware that new rules spell doom for sheltered workshops. She pledged to us that she will do anything she can to protect the important work that goes on inside the walls of Genesis and multiple other work activity centers. Ragan also noted that she had her best man on the job of heading up an interim study committee to look into how to fix the inevitable bugs that come with new rules: Sen. Joe Bolckom, D-Iowa City.

Bolckom is smart and sincere. He understands the problem up, down and sideways. We spoke with him on the phone Friday and admit to being lost in the Byzantine ways of mental health legislation that blends funds from the state, regions and counties. It was as if he were trying to explain the school funding formula or the rollback on property valuations — it’s that dense. Plus, he was speaking on a cellphone. So we did not become 15-minute PhDs on the subject of the mental health funding reform.

We understood this much:

“It’s kind of a mess,” Bolckom told us.

A bipartisan mess, at that.

And we heard this loud and clear:

“I am a supporter of sheltered workshops.”

And:

“The system is very underfunded everywhere. And that’s an issue.”

Forty-four counties have no new funding as client loads grow. Some counties refuse to spend money on work activity for handicapped adults, Bolckom said. All growth in mental health funding will come from the state, but it does not appear to be coming.

“We have to make sure that we give enough money to do the job right,” Bolckom said.

And there, no doubt, lies the rub.

To prevent growth in property taxes we are about to shut away and ignore the clients who report on time every day to sort cans and bottles at Genesis.

To keep millions of dollars in deposit money, bottlers are counting on people not to redeem their bottles and cans for a nickel — the rate hasn’t increased in 34 years. If the can is not redeemed, the bottler (Coca Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser, Miller) may keep the penny it otherwise would have had to pay to Genesis. It amounts to a big windfall every year in Iowa. Why would these interests ever want that deposit increased, which would increase redemption?

Because it’s the right thing to do.

For the handicapped.

For the environment.

For the consumers.

Bolckom is not confident that an expanded bottle bill can clear the special interests that have invested deeply in the Legislature.

He said he is focused at this point in giving the “green light” to Genesis to allow their clients to remain in the sheltered workshop.

Our senator, Mark Segebart, R-Vail, is a member of the interim study committee. He was unavailable for comment on Monday. Segebart has not raised the issue in any of his newsletters published in this newspaper. We would suppose he is aware of the problems with work activity centers throughout western Iowa, especially given his previous experience as a Crawford County Supervisor. We hope to hear from him that he will work hand-in-glove with Bolckom to make certain that hard-working handicapped adults may still report for real work every day at Genesis Development. We know that the Senate Democrats are committed to a solution. We can only hope the Republicans are as resolute as Bolckom and Ragan.