State’s budget problems prompt concerns for jobs program

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Darryl Enriquez
Sunday, April 17, 2011
— Trevor Mitchell likes to sing while he works. He says simple melodies sung quietly express the joy in his heart. Mitchell, a 40-year-old handicapped worker with VIP Services in Elkhorn, is working a job he enjoys, cleaning rest areas for travelers on interstates in Rock and Walworth counties. He occasionally breaks up the workday with a little standup comedy.

What Mitchell doesn’t do is worry about state contracts that keep him employed. That’s for VIP administrators.

Apprehensive directors worry about the possibility of state budget cuts affecting their $840,000 jobs program that keeps Trevor and 60 others at VIP working.

Mitchell, a six-year veteran with VIP, is more concerned about keeping windows spotless and wood benches buffed. The fragrance of lemon polish lingered as Mitchell moved between tasks on a recent morning. VIP, 811 E. Geneva St., is an agency that provides employment training, support and day-care activities for 375 disabled adults. The agency has operated for 40 years.

The agency has contracts with the state Department of Transportation to clean and maintain two rest stops on I-43 near East Troy and rest stops near Janesville and Beloit on I-90/39.

VIP assigns workers who can keep up with the physical demands and skills needed to work off site and often outdoors. They are paid by the hour and can advance from laborer to supervisor.

VIP workers also clean the Elkhorn Police Department, the state Division of Motor Vehicles Office in Elkhorn and Wisconsin National Guard armories in Whitewater and Elkhorn.

They maintain a one-acre plot where a “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign is planted along Highway 14.

Cindy Simonsen, VIP executive director, said there’s no sign that any rest areas would close, but in this time of volatile state and federal budgets, there’s no telling what can happen.

“We’ve gone through this already—when there were plans a few years ago to stop the cleaning contracts and maybe close rest stops,” Simonsen said. “The rest stop workers attended a state joint finance committee meeting in Racine to testify how important the VIP jobs were to them.”

Simonsen said money somehow becomes available at the last minute to renew contracts that never contain pay increases.

A transportation spokesman said contracts and rest stops are secure at the moment.

The rest stops near Janesville and Beloit are among the top five in visitors, serving about 1,300 travelers daily. That makes cleanup and maintenance all the more important, said Max Dodson, who has been with VIP for 15 years.

In comparison, the rest areas in Walworth County average about 350 visitors daily, according to the DOT.

Dodson, who directs the 60 workers, on a recent morning was at the Janesville location, a 22-acre site that needed sidewalks swept and trash cans emptied.

Dodson has managed VIP work crews in Rock and Walworth counties since 1998. The crew also cuts grass, scrubs floors and removes snow from sidewalks.

Dodson proudly displayed VIP’s new Retco Genie B, a $3,000 floor scrubber that “provides a whole new level of floor cleaning,” he said.

The Beloit rest stop, a 34-acre site, is considered a gateway location because of its proximity to the state line.

The state a few years ago pulled the state tourism employee from the rest stop, and it’s now up to Dodson’s crew to make sure a good supply of tourism brochures is stacked on the shelves.

A state spokesman said VIP, under the direction of Simonsen and Dodson, has worked out well for DOT, but state budget cuts could unexpectedly change the longstanding cleaning and maintenance agreements.

Last updated: 4:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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