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During the Disability Matters Town Hall Forum Saturday, Bradley Olson of Bemidji describes how services to people with disabilities have helped him become a successful employee in spite of his autism. At right is Steve Larson, public policy director for the Arc of Minnesota. Pioneer Photo/ Molly Miron

Arc of Minnesota: Disabilities Matters Town Hall Forum reviews state budget cuts

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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Expected state cuts of millions in funding for services to people with disabilities will have a heavy impact on the community.

That was the message people with developmental disabilities and their advocates presented during the Arc United and Arc of Minnesota Disability Matters Town Hall Forum Saturday morning at Bemidji City Hall.

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Area legislators from Districts 1, 2 and 4 were invited, as well as other elected officials, but those who attended - along with about 25 concerned citizens - were Rep. David Hancock, R-District 2B, and Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick.

Keynote speaker for the forum was Steve Larson, public policy director for the Arc of Minnesota. He said the organization's priorities are making sure funding meets the needs of people with disabilities, housing access, anti-bullying, education and empowering people with disabilities to control their lives.

When the state was looking at an expected budget shortfall of $6 billion, the cuts to disabilities services were going to be about 4.5 percent, Larson said. With the shortfall now expected at the somewhat less dire $5 billion, he said the cuts might be about 2 percent.

He urged the people the funding cuts impact the most, those with disabilities, to take Pedie Pederson's example and go to St. Paul to testify in budget committee hearings.

"It's good for them to hear because they can make informed decision," Larson said of legislators.

During the forum Saturday, several people who have been beneficiaries of disabilities services spoke of how their lives have been improved by opportunities provided, as well as their concerns about potential cuts.

Bradley Olson of Bemidji is autistic. He works with data entry at NKFX Profession and hosts a radio gospel music hour from 8-9 a.m. Sundays on WBJI. He said he is a successful employee and contributor to the community because of state services as he was growing up.

Pederson, a Bemidji resident who has cerebral palsy and gets around in a motorized wheel chair, said he has written a book to help people understand the struggles of people with disabilities. Cutting funds might save money in the short term, he said, but cause problems that will be more costly in the future if people can't live independently.

Cass Robinson of Arc United, who organized the forum and had her four adult developmentally disabled children in attendance, said some of the funding allows families to keep their children at home rather than enroll them in more expensive residential care.

"The most important thing you can do is talk to your own representative and tell your story," said Larson.

Hancock said he took part in the forum because he wanted to learn how people felt about the issue. He said adding taxes is bad for Minnesota because the state must maintain its economic competitive status with other areas.

"We need to establish economic stability, and that means we live within our means," he said. "I think, by establishing good, sound fiscal policy, we can do that."

However, he said he recognized from the testimony of those who need disability services that "this isn't about programs. It's really about people. It's about maximizing self worth. It's about maximizing opportunities."

Lucachick promised the people who use the services and their families that his top priority is to take care of the most vulnerable individuals.

"You have my word, personally, that I'll advocate for folks with disabilities," he said.

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