Probe of agency raises fears, hopes among the blind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Representatives of many of Maryland's blind people are concerned that cutbacks in services will result from a state government probe of an 83-year-old agency that serves the sightless.

But those same representatives say they are glad that the management and financial affairs of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland are being reviewed, because the organization's financial condition already has resulted in reduced services.

There have been cutbacks in Blind Industries' rehabilitation programs and other services, they say. Newly blind adults seeking instruction in walking with canes, reading Braille and relearning household skills say they are not getting the instruction they were promised.

"When I first got there, the program was understaffed, but they were able to take care of us," said a blind adult who asked not to be identified. "By the time I left last summer, they didn't have enough teachers, and we spent a lot of time sitting around."

Spokesmen for two of the three major organizations for the blind said they fear that the General Assembly, reacting to the reports of mismanagement at Blind Industries in austere times, will want to cut state funds for the agency, exacerbating the situation for the blind.

"It is very important to remember that BISM's state grant may be small potatoes in terms of the state budget, but it is a huge amount of money to the blind community," said Ralph Sanders, a vendor and former president of Blind Industries.

The agency was founded in 1908 to provide blind adults with education, vocational training and jobs.

It was awarded a $1.2 million state grant last year, later reduced to $934,000 because of the state's budget crunch.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked the Baltimore Circuit Court Dec. 17 to have a receiver appointed to run Blind Industries. He was responding to a Division of Vocational Education audit that found Blind Industries was showing large financial losses, raising top executives' salaries, employing fewer blind workers and using its funds to pay for a country club membership for its president, Richard J. Brueckner.

Instead of appointing a receiver, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan agreed that the state should conduct a detailed audit of Blind Industries' finances and programs.

Stanford D. Hess, an attorney for Blind Industries, said much of the furor over the agency's finances and management is unfounded.

The alleged financial irregularities -- amounting to several hundred dollars for automobile repairs -- were "insignificant" in an agency that grosses more than $13 million a year, he said.

"Is there any reason to put a receiver in a company with $39 bTC million in revenue and the only allegations of misspending involve a couple of hundred dollars in car repairs?" he asked.

Mr. Hess said Blind Industries' directors were not concerned about the allegations.

"Is there theft and overspending? No," said Mr. Hess, who blames Mr. Sanders for the current controversy.

During the past two decades, several fights have been waged over the stewardship of Blind Industries, in some cases revealing deep schisms among Maryland's blind people. But this time, two of the three organizations representing the blind -- the possible exception is the National Federation of the Blind -- are demanding that Blind Industries' management be reformed.

The group representing the state's blind vendors is asking Gov. William Donald Schaefer to "take whatever steps are necessary" to reorganize the agency's 12-member board of trustees, all of whom are appointed by the governor.

The American Council of the Blind is making the same demand, saying it is "shocked and appalled" by the Division of Vocational Education audit.

The National Federation of the Blind, which is considered a more militant advocate, has not taken a position.

"We haven't reviewed the audit," said Marc Maurer, president of the federation's Maryland chapter. "We haven't been given the opportunity, and we haven't pursued the matter very aggressively."

Although the audit raises some questions about Blind Industries, blind people think a more troubling question needs to be resolved: Should the agency be run like a private, profit-making company, or should it be run as a service agency for the blind?

"The current management team is functioning with a strange concept of service to the blind," said Mr. Sanders, who ran Blind Industries from 1975 to 1986. "The driving motivation is sales and income stream rather than service to the blind."

The agency's employment of blind people has been dropping, its own reports show. At Blind Industries' Salisbury plant, which manufactures sweat shirts, tote bags, backpacks and draperies, percent of the workers are blind.

Speaking for the agency, Mr. Hess said Blind Industries, on its own initiative, changed the way it figures hours worked to more ** accurately reflect work done by sighted employees and thus got more accurate figures for sighted and blind workers.

Under the old method, temporary workers hired to fulfill contracts were not counted.

"As a result [under the old method], the Salisbury plant exceeded all the other National Institute for the Blind workshops in the country in the percentage of hours worked by the blind. It did not reflect the real situation," Mr. Hess said.

In June 1991, Blind Industries employed 115 blind workers and 158 sighted workers in its plants, according to papers submitted to the court last month.

Gene Spurrier, a vice president of the American Council of the Blind of Maryland, said, "If I were a taxpaying businessman, this would upset me greatly. [Blind Industries] is receiving state grants, gets priority in state contracts and doesn't pay taxes."

Under the federal Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, 75 percent of the labor used to make goods in organizations such as Blind Industries is to be done by handicapped people if the groups are to qualify for preferential treatment in receiving federal contracts.

Federal agencies are supposed to give first priority to goods made in federal prisons. Sheltered workshops such as Blind Industries are given second priority in filling federal contracts and slight preferential treatment on price. State purchasing requirements are similar.

Under Mr. Brueckner during the past two years, Blind Industries' financial position has deteriorated, Mr. Sanders said.

The state audit found that the agency's net income last year was $187,106, down sharply from $655,370 the year before.

In addition, the number of sighted employees grew by 37 percent from June 1989 to October 1991, compared with an increase of 24 percent in the number of blind workers, the audit found.

"What is going on in BISM is damaging to the whole workshop program," Mr. Sanders said. "If they aren't going to hire blind people, there will be pressure to eliminate these special set-asides for blind people."

Blind activists point out that both unemployment and underemployment -- people working at jobs for which they have too much education or training -- are rampant among blind adults. That is why organizations such as Blind Industries were formed.

"You can't run BISM like a private corporation if it doesn't service blind people," Mr. Spurrier said. "We have to ask the question [whether] we might not be better off making BISM a state agency and providing the services."

Part of the purpose of the state's second audit is to determine whether Blind Industries' programs adhere to legal requirements. Deputy Attorney General Ralph Tyler III said he hopes the audit can be completed in about 60 days.

All this attention gives comfort to the blind activists who think Blind Industries has been changing its mission without getting approval from its board or the General Assembly.

"The board of trustees has not been doing a very good job of holding the agency to line," Mr. Sanders said. "BISM was created to serve the blind community. That is why it's receiving the state grant, and that is what it should be doing."

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