State Agency Shuts Office on Vineyard; Future Is Uncertain

By MANDY LOCKE

It's much quieter these days at 1 Douglas Way in Oak Bluffs. Barbara's not around. Neither are many of the 112 Islanders who rely on the Department of Transitional Assistance for emergency shelter, food stamps, health care and job placement assistance.

A small note on the door directs Islanders to call Yarmouth's DTA office in the event of an emergency. Those in need may be lucky enough to stop by during one of the days that a DTA case worker from Hyannis mans the Vineyard office.

This is the reality of lean times in the state of Massachusetts. Legislators slashed $5 million from the Department of Transitional Assistance's staffing budget alone. They took another swing at the DTA's general administration budget, mandating $3 million more in cuts.

Hiring freezes slimmed the gap in staffing to $3 million, but the DTA (formerly the Department of Public Welfare) handed out 160 pink slips last week to trim further. One of the layoff notices landed on the desk of Barbara Flynn - the Vineyard's only case worker.

An employee of DTA for 26 years, the 69-year-old Ms. Flynn is taking advantage of unused vacation days before her Feb. 22 termination. With her elimination, the fate of the Island's DTA office looks bleak.

"As of Feb. 22, the office is under review," said Dick Powers, spokesman for the DTA. "Until then, it's business as usual."

"Under review" could mean shutting down, which would force Vineyard clients to travel to offices in Falmouth or Hyannis. The DTA could also send a case worker from a larger office to hold periodic office hours on the Vineyard. Given recent layoffs, hiring a new case worker seems unlikely.

While DTA officials discuss the future of the agency's smallest office, Vineyard human services workers lament the potential loss of this resource.

"When you have a community of 15,000 - a community with one of the highest costs of living - it's ridiculous at best to close such an office," said Ned Robinson-Lynch, executive director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services. "It seems an unrealistic way for the commonwealth to save money at the expense of 112 people."

Of the 112 Islanders receiving aid from the DTA, nearly all of them are single mothers.

"This office is essential in helping women deal with the many hurdles they face in trying to become independent," said Ann Wallace, director of Women's Support Services for Martha's Vineyard Community Services.

"These are the neediest people. Even with DTA benefits, it's still hard for them to make it here. Day to day, week to week, anything can upset the balance," said Jennifer Wey, ongoing social worker for the Island's Department of Social Services.

If the Vineyard's office is closed permanently, many wonder how the state expects those in need to get to an off-Island office.

"Many of the families we service don't have transportation and they certainly don't have money for repeated ferry trips," said Ms. Wey.

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington sent his own plea on behalf of the office last week. In a letter to DTA commissioner Claire McIntire, he wrote, "Recognizing the unique aspect of living on an Island, the department has always provided on-Island help for Islanders in need of assistance, and should continue to do so."

Apart from uncertainty over the fate of the Vineyard's DTA office, many mourn the loss of Barbara Flynn. Ms. Wey said DSS clients who rely on DTA always appreciated Ms. Flynn's kindness.

"It's so hard to go and ask for food stamps," Ms. Wey said. "They already feel judged. Barbara was always comforting to them."

No final decision about the office's future has been made, so time remains for Islanders to express their concern for the potential closing.

"Islanders have got to make a case for the office," Mr. Turkington said.