- The Department of Services for the Blind has a biennial operating budget of $35.0 million. This is comprised of:
- $25.5 million, (73%) in federal grants from the Department of Education – Rehabilitation Services Administration,
- $7.5 million, (21%) General Fund – State, and
- $2 million, (6%) in the Business Enterprise Program.
- Of the federal grants,
- Over the next biennium, DSB is projecting to spend
- $15.2 million on salaries and benefits,
- $13.6 million on purchased client goods and services,
- $6.2 million on operating support costs.
COVID-19 Impact | Budget Impacts and Economic Recovery Planning
While the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted VR and IL program caseloads and outcomes, the most devastating impact has been to the BEP program.
BEP COVID-19 Impact
Before COVID-19, the blind small business owners through the BEP program managed 20 food service facilities in federal, state and county government buildings. They employed around 95 restaurant and food service staff, generated revenues of around $7.5 million in sales annually, and contributed more than $550,000 in sales tax revenues to the state.
The agency’s BEP program itself, which provides training, start up supports, equipment & stock, and on going technical assistance to the blind entrepreneurs, is funded primarily on revenues derived from vending machine sales in government buildings and federal facilities.
The broad state agency response to COVID-19, sensibly, was to primarily work from home. The BEP vendors, as a result, have no customer base in the government buildings, and vending machines are not being utilized. Most BEP facilities are closed since March, with three operations operating at a much reduced capacity.
The agency was gratefully able to negotiate rent abatement for the Capitol Campus facilities, but county facilities continue to charge rent in empty buildings, and costs for vending operations, such as the approximately $30,000 charged annually to the agency by the Department of Transportation for the right to vending facilities at federal rest stops, continue. The agency also assisted vendors in securing CARES Act and other small business support funding to manage through extended months with no revenue.
The agency has a decision package in process to request funding supports for creating a new model of BEP operations, one that is less dependent on a maximum number of state workers in a building. It is known that, through the state’s response to the pandemic, many state agency tasks can be accomplished remotely, and there are discussions on how to reduce state agency footprints. This means a long term reduction in the customer base for the BEP vendors, and a new model is needed to keep those businesses profitable and able to continue contributing tax revenues back into the state.
VR and Pre-ETS COVID-19 Impact
The challenges to VR are deep as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While numbers served have decreased by 8% in 2020, and employment outcomes have decreased by 46%, the agency is confident that both metrics will increase again once health concerns due to the pandemic are resolved.
An expectation is that the agency will face a large spike in applications and there will be an intensity in services over the next two years. The workplace for all of us will be radically different post-COVID – there will be a greater emphasis on remote work modalities. For a job seeker or employee who is blind, this shift to remote work adds complexity to accessibility – how do new software applications interact with adaptive softwares; how do blind users access video technologies effectively, and compete with sighted users in video interviews or manage remote facilitation of meetings. This requirement to learn new technologies and skills has already shown an increase in the type of applications we are receiving – which includes many people who fear their job is at risk due to the complexities of new methods of doing the work. We anticipate this need alone will increase applications post-COVID, as well as the additional numbers of those who normally would have applied this year but delayed that decision due to COVID-19.
The greater concern is if the agency is faced with reductions in state funding as well as a simultaneous increase in applications. If the agency funding is reduced, the VR program won’t have adequate revenues to meet the full comprehensive need of applicants. When the agency forecasts inadequate resources to immediately and comprehensively serve all eligible individuals, we are required by federal law to institute a waitlist, and delay services for eligible applicants. The challenge is that VR services average three years from application to exit, so the cost savings from a waitlist are derived only after significant time has passed and a number of active participants have exited services. When we last implemented a waitlist, most services for new applicants were delayed by a year or more.
For our Pre-ETS youth services funding, the impact of COVID-19 was to lose valuable work experiences and development opportunities that rely on in-person activities. We did successfully pivot to create an amazing array of remote services for youth this summer. An odd result of that was to experience a reduction in program costs that caused the agency to underspend the federal monies set aside for Pre-Employment Transition Services. While the agency was on track to spend all Pre-Employment Transition Service dollars set aside in January 2020, the cancellation of valuable in-person services due to COVID-19 forced the agency to return around $400,000 unspent at the end of the federal fiscal year September 30th. The agency had requested of our federal partners to allow those funds to carry over another year or allow flexibility to spend on adult VR service needs, but no timely federal action was taken on that request.
IL COVID-19 Impact
IL Program caseload numbers dropped drastically in 2020, by almost 50%. Many IL potential customers are considered among vulnerable populations to COVID-19 – the average age of those served is 82.