For the past 37 years, Mike Robinson and Richard Zboray have shared a room in a state-run group home in Manchester.
Together with a few other residents and three staffers who have been with them for at least 17 years apiece, they have created what amounts to a family at Waterford Commons, Robinson said.
“We laugh and we joke,” he said. “They’re a great bunch of guys.”
But the fate of their family may rest with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators who are trying to figure out how to cope with a bleak budget forecast that many say requires big spending cuts and revisions to the way the state delivers even the most essential services.
“We’re going to be closing state facilities. We’re going to be laying off state employees,” Malloy told about 200 people gathered for a community forum Wednesday in the reading room at William F. Staff Hall at the UConn School of Law in Hartford.
With officials trying to cope with a projected deficit of more than $200 million this year and perhaps $900 million next year – a number Malloy said he fears may grow even larger – the budget is the key issue at the Capitol.
For Robinson, though, the numbers don’t mean much.
His long-time roommate, Richard Zboray, 63, has Down’s Syndrome and was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Michael Zboray, Richard’s brother, drove to Hartford from his home in Maine Wednesday to plead with Malloy to stop plans to privatize the place.
“Now of all times, he can’t take the change,” Zboray said.
Robinson said that shifting around the group home’s staff and perhaps residents will discombobulate a family that belongs together after all these years.
“Go get this money someplace else,” Zboray said. “Don’t take it from challenged people who have no voice.”
Malloy told him that either he or Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman would visit the home and see for themselves what’s going on.
But Shelagh McClure of West Hartford urged the governor to move ahead with privatization, which might open the door to finding places for some 2,000 people waiting for a spot in a group home, including her son. She said she was “quite happy” to see the state making changes that could stretch scarce dollars farther.
How to cope with sinking state revenues dominated discussion at the hour-long forum that drew scores of government workers worried about proposals for service reductions, layoffs and trimmed benefits.
Malloy “is planning to cut critical services to deal with the budget deficit,” said Paul Fortier of Southbury, who works for the Department of Developmental Services.
Fortier said that a better solution would be to make the rich pay as great a percentage of their income as middle class and working people in Connecticut.
Malloy dismissed the idea of hiking taxes.
“I’ve raised taxes multiple times. It’s not working. And it’s come up a cropper,” Malloy said. He said spurring economic growth is what’s necessary.
The governor asked if people present wanted tax hikes or layoffs. There was near unanimity against doing either.
“You want me to pull a rabbit out of a hat?” Malloy asked. Many hollered out yes.
Dawn McKay, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said she’s concerned about the way the state is relying so heavily on contractors. She said the private contractors amount to “a shadow government” who don’t have the same commitment to public service as public employees possess.
Malloy said there may be private contracts that cost too much, but denied they amount to a shadow government.
Roland Bishop, a teacher for the Department of Correction for the past 13 years, said he’s concerned that cuts eyed for his department will wind up short-circuiting the Second Chance Society initiative by scrimping on drug counseling and other services for former prisoners.
He said that without the services necessary to bolster ex-convicts in their new life, too many of them will return to crime and wind up back behind bars. That would cause the overall cost to spike up, Bishop said.
Malloy said he remains “truly committed” to second chances for prisoners, but every department has to find ways to save. There are “not a whole lot of things you can put on the side when projected deficits are so large,” he said.
“How much is enough? And how much is fair?” Malloy asked. He agreed that if officials “don’t handle it well,” then reductions could be counterproductive.
The governor said that legislators and his administration are going to have tough choices to make in the weeks ahead. There are only eight weeks left in the legislative session.
Malloy said he hopes that lawmakers will deliver a budget on time before the end of the session on May 4, and that the spending plan can be finished sooner than that.
One thing that’s certain, the governor said, is that “it’s going to be a tough year and a half.”