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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2003

Governor's plan to address deficit takes a human toll

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio - Grace Harris is 75 years old.

Her husband, Richard, is 80.

Their son, Jeffrey, is 45 and he's mentally retarded.

For 27 years, Jeffrey Harris has lived at Springview, a state home for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled in Springfield, about 35 miles east of Dayton.

Jeffrey Harris has multiple disabilities. He can't walk or talk. He is incontinent. His mother said his food doesn't have to be pureed, but it must be in small bites. If someone placed a bowl of steaming soup in front of him, he likely would try it. He needs around-the-clock attention.

It wasn't easy for Jeffrey Harris to move from his parents' home at the age of 18 to Springview. He developed a bleeding ulcer.

“It takes quite a while for him to adjust to anything new,'' says Mrs. Harris. “What he understands and doesn't understand is difficult to tell. He's not a violent child. He communicates with kisses.”

Richard and Grace Harris, who are retired Dayton teachers, say that Springview eventually became a home for their son, who uses a wheelchair.

“The people who work there treat the residents like their children. If a fellow worker is ill, they work a double shift or whatever is necessary. It's like a family,'' Mrs. Harris says.

On Wednesday, state officials announced they will shut down Springview by June 30, 2005. A year later, the state also will close the Apple Creek center near Wooster in Wayne County.

“My heart goes out to people,'' says Kenneth Ritchey, director of the state Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. “I'm sorry. I wish we had other ways to do this.”

In his State of the State address on Jan. 22, Gov. Bob Taft told legislators he had signed an executive order that morning to cut $121 million from the state budget because of a projected shortfall.

He said the state gradually would move people from “institutions to community-based settings, enabling us to close one or two developmental centers in the next two years.”

The state faces a projected $720 million shortfall in the budget that ends June 30, and a $4 billion hole in the two-year budget that starts July 1, the governor says.

It was Mr. Ritchey's job to decide which two of the 12 state centers would close - with Mr. Taft making the final call.

“We don't have the money in our budget to keep the centers running,'' says Mr. Ritchey, who struggled to estimate how much the state would save by closing the two centers. “Our department this year alone has lost $35 million in budget cuts. That's a staggering amount of money.”

Although he discussed the human toll, Mr. Ritchey presented the cold numbers that led to his decision.

Springview has 86 residents and 179 employees. Built nearly a century ago, Springview is the oldest of the state's 12 centers and has the fewest residents. The daily cost per resident is $371.12 - and expenses that the Medicaid program will reimburse is lower than other centers.

Mr. Ritchey says his decision is consistent with the state's goal of moving more residents out of state “institutions'' and into community centers - either not-for-profit or for-profit facilities.

Families and guardians of residents will have a choice to transfer to another state center or to a community center. Advocates for the mentally retarded say that about 17,000 people are on waiting lists to get into community centers, group homes, and assisted-living centers.

Mr. Ritchey says he will ask legislators to include a provision in the state budget that starts July 1 that would give Springview and Apple Creek residents preference in moving to another state center.

“I'll do everything in my power to make that choice a reality,'' he says.

Springview is 27 miles from the state center for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled in the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights, and 39 miles from the state center in Columbus, Mr. Ritchey says.

When they heard the news of Springview's demise, Grace and Richard Harris were devastated.

They are elderly. Their son has the mental capacity of an 18-month-old child.

“He is not a candidate for a group home. He would die in a group home,'' Mrs. Harris says.

At the Statehouse, conservative Republican legislators vow to cut more state spending. Democratic leaders watch GOP legislators, many of whom attacked their opponents last year for backing “tax hikes,” struggle with Mr. Taft's call for a massive tax increase.

From their home in Englewood, near Dayton, the game has no appeal to Grace and Richard Harris.

“I don't understand our government attacking those who aren't capable of speaking for themselves or voting,'' Mrs. Harris says.

A few hours after talking to Grace Harris and hearing her fear and pain, I listened to a group of healthy, middle- and upper-income schoolchildren sing “Beautiful Ohio, thy wonders are in view, Land where my dreams all come true.”

But for Grace and Richard Harris, it feels like a nightmare now.



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