Crime victims services center faces financial pinch
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | October 01,2013
MONTPELIER — A special study committee created by the Legislature will begin meeting Wednesday to explore new funding options for existing services offered to crime victims in Vermont because the programs have outgrown the current funding mechanism.
The Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services (VCCVS), created in 1992, assists victims of crime in Vermont through direct financial assistance and other services. Those services are funded through grants as well as fees and surcharges on civil tickets and criminal fines.
But VCCVS Executive Director Judith Rex said the program — and the number of services provided — has grown over the past two decades. The center asked for and received another increase in surcharges on fines during the last legislative session. Lawmakers indicated, though, that the limit has now been reached, she said.
“Over the years as the program expanded and our budget grew the Legislature would just raise the surcharge on traffic tickets and criminal fines,” Rex said. “I think everyone in the Legislature felt like, ‘OK, we’ve maxed this out.’”
Collecting the surcharges is also problematic. “The collection rate isn’t very good” because many civil violations go unpaid, Rex said.
The study committee, comprised of lawmakers from both chambers as well as Rex and a state budget analyst, has been tasked with reviewing current revenue sources and developing a financial plan for continuing the services.
“We’ve been at the forefront of victims’ services in Vermont,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Sears said. “They are really important programs.”
The latest increase in surcharges took effect July 1. Now, for example, a $100 traffic fine results in a total amount owed to the state of $162.
According to Rex, $47 — $7.25 for the general fund, $10 for a domestic violence fund and the remaining sum for a victims’ compensation fund — is assessed on every ticket or criminal fine. Another 15 percent of every fine is assessed and directed to a restitution fund.
“I think some legislators are really concerned that ... they’re paying a lot of fees and fines and they don’t tend to have a lot of money,” Rex said.
The restitution fund was created in 2004 and provides crime victims with advance payments on money ordered by a court to be paid. The VCCVS restitution unit then works to collect the court-ordered restitution from those who owe it.
Compounding the funding problem is a decline in the number of traffic tickets issued by state and local police. There has been a 25 percent decrease in tickets issued in the past five years, Rex said.
VCCVS ended the 2013 fiscal year with a $900,000 balance. Current projections show that at least $400,000 of that surplus will be needed to balance the group’s budget in the current fiscal year, followed by another $500,000 in the 2015 fiscal year.
The program will run a deficit in the 2016 fiscal year, Rex said, but the balance will provide time to address it.
“I think we have time to deal with this,” she said.
Because VCCVS has grown “piecemeal” since its inception, there are likely ways to reduce overhead and streamline operations, Rex said. However, the need for new funding sources will remain, she said.
“We do have some ideas to achieve some efficiencies. And then, absent making cuts, there would have to be some new revenues,” Rex said.
The group has an annual budget of about $10 million, with nearly $4 million coming from fees and surcharges assessed by the state. The remaining funds come from grants, according to Rex.
A victims’ advocate in each county’s state’s attorney’s office collectively adds up to a major drain on the budget. Rex said workers who serve as victims advocates are state employees but the $1.8 million cost is paid by VCCVS, not the general fund.
The advocates were initially paid by the state from the general fund and should be again, she said. That idea, however, will “probably go over like a lead balloon,” Rex said.
“We use special funds and federal funds to fund that program and I really think we should be using state funds for that,” she said.
The advocates are entitled to pay raises each year based on their labor contract with the state that will cost a total of $150,000 this year. Employees of VCCVS are not state employees and not entitled to those raises, Rex said.
Sears, a member of the study committee, said paying advocates from the general fund will open other holes in the state budget.
“That’s another thing that we could recommend but that would leave us $2 million short somewhere else,” he said.