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Nov 14, 2021

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Joining Carol Pankow in the VRTAC-QM Studio we have Chanda Hermanson, Administrator of the Disability Employment and Transition Programs in Montana, and Allison Flannagan,   VR Director at Florida General.

Chanda and Allison share their experience and challenges while navigating the World of VR finances. Learn how networking and team building improve understanding and develop solutions to VR’s biggest financial challenges.

The VRTAC for Quality Management has a number of fiscal resources meant to help you and your staff navigate the enormous fiscal responsibilities of managing this complex Federal program.  Go to, Fiscal and Resource Quality Management. You will find the regulations, topical information, best practices, and some tools we have developed.  There are more are coming all the time and we have a long list in development. Please feel free to reach out to us with any ideas you have for tools that can be of help to you. 

Let’s help each other navigate the world of VR finances. One Manager at a time. One Minute at a time.


Full Transcript


VRTAC-QM Manager Minute: Is Your Fiscal Management Managed? Building a Solid Foundation for Financial Fitness.


Speaker: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management. conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host, Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the Manager Minute, I am so fortunate to have these two brilliant ladies in the studio today for our discussion, we have Chanda Hermanson, administrator of the Disability Employment and Transition Programs in Montana, and Allison Flanagan, VR Director at Florida General. So welcome to you both. So Chanda, it certainly has been a crazy past 18 months. How are things in Montana?


Chanda: It has been a crazy 18 months, things that we've had to manage that we don't think we would have ever even thought about before. But we are coming back. Things are going well and we've learned new techniques and strategies and are coming up better.


Carol: Good for you. Good for you. And Allison, in Florida also has certainly had its challenges over the past year or two. So how are you hanging in there?


Allison: Well, I'm hanging. Sometimes it's hanging by a thread some days, but you could say it's been an extraordinary 20 months, for sure. I mean, everybody knows we've had challenges both personally and professionally, obviously. But I think the pandemic has brought us some good opportunities that we're going to see forever down the road. So I'm thankful for that part, honestly.


Carol: Well, I'm glad to hear that. So today we're going to talk about the VR fiscal situation, and I know that many people have gravitated to working in VR because they love working with people. However, we're not always as familiar as prepared for the business aspect of this work. Yeah, VR is a multibillion dollar industry that is truly a business with a social service focus. Both of you have a long history with VR holding many different roles. Now, I personally didn't grow up in VR, but did have a long history in employment services for people with disabilities. I was also fortunate enough to participate in an RSA sponsored master's program and got my degree in the management of rehabilitation services all the way back in nineteen ninety four from DePaul University in Chicago. And that really helped to prepare me for the business end of this work, and I applied everything that I learned in every job I ever held. And even with all of that, I still remember coming to Minnesota Blind and waiting through the fiscal rules of engagement for VR and thinking, Holy smokes. I mean, this is a bunch. You add on to those new requirements, like the 15 percent minimum reservation of funds, you've got match maintenance of effort, reallotment and then COVID hit. I know that really impacted your ability to expend funds you couldn't find. The students providers were trying to gear up for virtual service delivery, and some of the existing consumers pull back. And I know it was tough finding staff to fill vacancies. There was just a whole lot going on, so I consider you both such straight shooters, and I'm really interested to dig in and find out about your approach for navigating the fiscal picture of VR today. So I want to start by getting a little flavor for the overall setup of your agencies. So, Allison, I'm going to direct this to you first. What's the organizational structure of your fiscal resources in your state? Are they centralized at the DSA? Are they within your division? Can you paint us a little picture?


Allison: Sure. So Florida VR is within the Florida Department of Education, so that's our designated state agency. And even though we have like a grant management and a budget director that those services, the fiscal piece is still centralized within our DSA. We pay for those critical positions, but they're technically the answer to the DSA, folks. So not all states are organized that way, but our grants manager is actually housed within the DSA controller office, so they're still benefits there, whether they're centralized or decentralized, you can get that connection that you need.


Carol: All right. How about you, Chanda? How are you guys organized?


Chanda: Our vocational rehabilitation program has an internal budget analysts in the VOC Rehab Program that works closely with our business and finance division at the DSA, which is the Department of Public Health and Human Services in Montana. Our internal budget analyst works closely with myself and the program bureau chiefs to develop projections and identify errors in the work intimately with the numbers, and then also works closely with the DSA fiscal staff to do all of our federal reporting.


Carol: Sounds good. Yeah, there's definitely a lot of variety in how agencies are organized, for sure. So I think many times we think of fiscal activities being something that the accounting folks have to worry about and everybody else sort of shies away from the subject. But clearly, there's a great deal of value in the non-accounting folks like all of us to speak, you know, understanding the numbers. So I think this is especially true for executive leadership as ultimately the success of the agency is largely contingent on your vision in your direction. So tell us a little bit about your start as a director in the background. You have in working with the finances. And how did you start and dig in to get a handle on the requirements? And Chanda, I'm going to kick that to you first.


Chanda: All righty. When I became the director of the V.R. agency about two years ago, the agency was in Order of Selection with all categories closed and we're in the midst of an interesting financial situation due to two years of significant over enrollment of participants. At the time, there was not any staff with a lot of historical knowledge. About to be our grant, our rules, allowances, etc. Nothing. We were fortunate in 2017 to be selected for RSA monitoring, which might be surprising to hear that that was a fortunate thing, but it was what we needed it and it was a fantastic experience. The RSA monitoring team came to Montana and were on site for one week and we had the opportunity to work and learn really closely with our RSA fiscal partner. That week, she went above and beyond and out of her way to learn about our state systems and our state rules, and then partnered with us to strategize ways to manage forward through our upcoming maintenance of effort, penalties and ways that we needed to manage our budget differently. Our partnership was invaluable to ensure Montana VOC Rehab could persevere through the myriad of obstacles we were in, and we've made sure to spread that knowledge through every level of staff, so every staff member knows their role and the rules which drive our business. As you said, it takes everybody to understand how this impacts their role and where their decision making impacts the budget as a whole.


Carol: I really liked when you've talked about this in the past and you've been really forthright about that fortunate monitoring from twenty seventeen and how it kind of really puts you on that different path. I appreciate that. And the tact that you've taken in your agency to really get all the levels understanding the fiscal sword. It Isn't this mystery over here somewhere to the side? So, Allison, tell us a little bit about your start as director in the background you have working with the finances.


Allison: Well, let me start with the background part of it. As it relates to finances, I'm going to go way back. So in high school, math was like my best subject, and I had a goal of being a certified public accountant someday. So my first year in college, I was actually an accounting major that only lasted one year before I changed my major. But I still always had that internal skill, I guess a math type of things. So that really honestly is like the total background of my finance piece. So any of the directors out there that really don't have that finance background, it's OK. Hopefully, by the time we finish this, you're going to have a little bit of assurance that you're OK if you don't have that finance background. So in the administrative roles with VR, though, I really quickly had to learn more about the fiscal side of the VR part. When you're out in the field doing direct services counselor, you have a budget that you work within, or at least I did as a counselor, but that was really the extent of it. And then when you get to an administrative role, it's wholly different. It's a different perspective, it's a different  approach. So I really had to research for those resources back then. Of course, you're talking about 10, 12 years ago when I first started in that administrative role and I had to ask lots of questions of staff, and I went even a step further than just them giving me an answer. I went further and said, OK, tell me where you got that answer. Where is that answer located? That helped me start connecting with what existing staff's knowledge or understanding is, where it actually is stated in the law regulations, you know, some regulatory guidance, whatever it is, it was almost like a puzzle back then. I started putting those pieces together. But honestly, I don't think any person in VR is going to understand all the fiscal aspects fully and wholly. It's very complicated. It's very complex. The first thing I know is you as a director have to really understand the laws and regulations and all the guidance that's out there. And there is a plethora of resources now versus 10, 15 years ago, and I'm very thankful for all those resources. So they're out there, but you have to take the time to read them and not just read them, but understand them and comprehend them. And I think we all know that if you read any kind of law or regulation, any kind of regulatory guidance, everybody can read the same sentence and we all can come out with a different interpretation. So not only reading it and understanding it, but also discussing it with your leaders so that we all get on the same page. We all have that same perception of what it means. Experience, I think, has probably brought me more fiscal knowledge. But knowing where those resources are and where it says that piece, you may not even know the whole piece of that law. But if you remember that word that stood out like reasonable, applicable, allowable, you know, the cost principles that we hear all the time, you may forget one, but you know where to go. Get it. That's what I had to do as a director, and I think it's helped me in the long run.


Carol : I love that you said that I had to learn that same way because I would find myself getting in trouble it over something. And then I go in and I'm like, Well, What’s it say in the regulation? And I go in and look that up? And then that's how things begin to cement in my mind, because stuff was so uniquely different in VR, you know, even the words you use, your kind of like, there strange. And so, to get that in your head, I just think that's a great approach. So, Allison, I don't know if you know this, but you know you were a huge resource to me in the early days when I was navigating Order of Selection and what went into developing this priority for services. I just wondered, was there any particular tool or resource that was helpful to you as you started in this leadership role? Is there something you can point to?


Allison: People. Honestly, people were the best tool. Resource for me, and it's identifying the correct people, the ones that have the greater knowledge and skills than you do connecting  with that RSA liaison, the programmatic or the fiscal liaisons is critical because when you have those one off questions that are not quite addressed completely, you've got to have those folks who go to and say help. This is what we think, but we're not sure. So people to me is the biggest resource today. It's very different than it was back when I first started. But the TA centers that RSA has funded has amazing resources out there. They develop tons of trainings. Any kind of guidance that you need is out there on those different TA centers, and I'm very thankful for that. I do think we have a lot better onboarding for directors now. I guess that's the best way to say it because there's not really a required onboarding, but definitely a lot of good things out there. Our state’s website. That's where you're going to make sure that you're getting that legal guidance, all the laws, regulations. And to me, that's kind of that top tier. You know, you go to RSA first, you look at all of their guidance if you need to, you talk to your liaisons, you go to those TA centers that are supported by RSA. You look at all that information. You still are not sure. You hopefully have a really strong leadership team that you have developed as a director that all have that different perspective that they bring to your team. And you're able to say, this is what I read. Is this what you all understand? There's a lot of resources out there. It can be overwhelming. There's so many. So honestly, as a director, it's really finding the style to your learning. Are you a reader or are you a visual? Are you a tactile? Do you need to sit down with your budget guy and actually go through it with your folks? But it's really understanding what your style is and finding the people that you can trust?


Carol: Yeah, I like to call it finding a buddy, You were my buddy and different people connected folks. So definitely anybody listening. You can contact us at the VRTAC-QM and we can help link you up because we understand other directors going through similar situations. And so sometimes it's nice to just have that buddy to talk to and talk through it. So Chanda, how about you? Is there any particular tool or resource that was helpful to you as you started in your leadership role?


Chanda: Yeah, I was fortunate enough prior to getting this position, my previous position, I got to attend and be a participant of the National Rehabilitation Leadership Institute at San Diego State. Through that program as a yearlong program. I learned a ton of things that at the time weren't applicable to me, but when I got this job, I had resources now, materials. They rang a bell at least, and I could go back and refer to those things. But most valuable out of that experience is developing A network of peers that I got to work with throughout that year on projects and experiences and people from all over the country, all different types of agencies. Because of the relationships that we built through that experience, be able to call somebody I knew pretty well and ask the dumb questions, ask maybe embarrassing questions, you know, depending on the circumstances, especially where we were at at the time. So that networking, that experience, was invaluable to me as I got promoted through the agency just along those lines too,, through CSAVR and other opportunities again, relationships, I think the key to all of this is building relationships and finding that mentor, know who to call for what and ask the questions and have honest conversations and point you in the right direction. Also, the CSAVR leadership forums have been really valuable. I have not passed up one opportunity to get attendance. They've always hit the nail on the head talking about things that are important and critical during that time, whatever the time is. So I've always appreciated the thoughtfulness that are put into those forums because they really do influence our work and are great opportunities. And then, of course, the Technical Assistance Centers throughout the years, another great network of people to ask questions, to have hard conversations, get the answers you might not want to hear, but you know it's the right answer. Yeah, networking and relationships through all those avenues has been invaluable.


Carol: Well, you both did a great job plugging all kinds of things and our allies CSAVR, the TACs. We appreciate all of that. That is super awesome. But definitely, yeah, it's the people part of this. The relationships are just invaluable. So now we're going to switch a little bit to dig in a little bit on the state of your finances in your respective state agencies. You know, are you both able to get the match you need to fully access your federal grant? And if you aren't able to, what kind of strategies have you used to work on that? And so Chanda, I'm going to kick that to you first.


Chanda: Thanks. This one's kind of tricky. So historically, getting our match at a traditional grant level funding has not been challenging. Now we did have two years of significant overspend, as I mentioned previously, and that was not able to be matched because it was so situational. But historically, that's not been a problem to us. Our legislative body really sees the value in the work that we do and supporting Montana's workforce needs. We've always been really lucky in that area.


Carol: That's awesome. You are very fortunate. That is not the case across the country in all places, and Allison may be able to speak to that next.


Allison: So Florida Legislature has not increased our state dollars in oh, my goodness. A lot of years, but we've been OK, we've been able to meet our match, but we are at a point because, you know, your federal award is increased through the cost of living and based on the per capita and stuff every year. So your state match has to go up every year. Well, we're at a point that we're starting to see the shift where we won't have enough match. So we saw this in our forecasting and the fiscal tools that we utilize to prepare for this and we tapped into. There are funding that the legislators do. They fund specific programs is called adults with disabilities grants is what they call it. Some folks might call it legislative pet projects. That's another term for it. So we have recurring ones and we have non-recurring ones and it changes every legislative cycle, so we never know exactly what we're going to get. But the purpose of these programs was some kind of service for adults with disabilities. Not all of them were focused on employment, some were recreational, some was more like a day treatment t type facilities. But what we did was we recognized that we needed those additional state dollars or we were not going to have enough to match. We switch the way we work with those grants and now they're required to work with us, meaning all the customers they work with had to be referred to us.

Of course, we had to make sure that we were only focused on those programs that would help employment outcomes. So no matter what the service was, making sure that we could connect that to employment, but it allowed us to take all of those dollars and match it. So that increased our match ability. We did the same thing with our high school, high tech funding that the legislator specifically awards to them and also our assistive technology partners the dollars they get from the state. So we have tapped into that. We still know that down the road, we're either going to have to ask for additional money through the legislators or we have to get a little more creative. And I like to have a plan, a Plan B, Plan C and so forth. So third party cooperative agreements is still in my back pocket. I had TCPAs when I first came here, they were a little bit of a mess. They were audited literally like six months before I started my position, so I missed the audit of twenty seventeen. But I didn't miss the report that came following and part of that was the TCPA findings.

It's very administratively heavy for VR to do TCPAs, so we actually backed out of the TCPA because of all the findings with it. But it's still an option and we know that is down the road if we want to do it again. But I will say our TCPA was with our school districts when we pulled that out and only approach them to start as a provider for the school. We have so many more school districts that jumped on board with that approach instead of the third party cooperative agreement because they now don't have to have that percentage. And I think that's what was hurting some of that relationship with the schools. They didn't have that additional dollars. So it actually ended up being a good thing, even though we got rid of the TCPA. But any director that's looking at match challenges, you really have to try to forecast several years out down the road. You can't go to that legislator say, Oops, we need the money right now. You've got a plan out and then who could plan for a pandemic when states were holding money tightly go, no, no, no. We don't know what the next year or two years are going to look like. So always make sure you have plan a, b, c and maybe all the way down to Z.


Carol: Joe Xavier likes to say, You need the microscope. You're looking at the current but the telescope to looking down the road. So yeah, I like that. Good advice.


Allison: I know the Community Reinvestment Act that the VRTAC-QM is going to pile it with a couple of states. Florida is very interested in that because that's a partnership relationship and Florida is very supportive of those relationships. So that's something we're also going to be watching very closely.


Carol: Oh, good. Yeah, we'll definitely be talking about that on another podcast down the road. So since you mentioned the pandemic and we know a lot's happened over the last couple of years, the pandemic has definitely changed. The face of VR in many states have had to adjust to this new normal just by flying by the seat of your pants. So what unique things have happened in your state in the past two years that have impacted the finances? And Allison, I'll have you start with that.


Allison: Well, I know a lot of states have had a lot of difficulty spending their 15 percent reserve for the Pre Employment Transition Services. And I'll say one thing unique with Florida is our governor made sure that our schools stayed open. The Brick-and-Mortars had to be opened last year. There was hybrid options, obviously, to students with health concerns or COVID symptoms. But the Brick-and-Mortar had to stay open for all the school districts, and I think that is why Florida was able to spend our 15 percent PreETS funding. I mean, we were right down to the wire, but we saw our expenditures really go up this last year, that school was in place. So I do think that was a huge benefit for Florida.


Carol: Good for you. Yeah, that has not been the case across the country, for sure.


Allison: Flip side of that, though, the telework option that so many states have implemented for the Department of Education or DSA has fully implemented telework, and that has allowed us just in this most recent fiscal year 2020 one. We reduced our physical footprint across the state, have arranged our lease agreements, put in hoteling spaces, but just this first year, we have saved one million dollars in leases that go back to our customer services.


Carol: Wow, that's big. Holy smokes. So how about you, Chanda? What unique things have happened in your state in the past two years that have impacted the finances?


Chanda: Well, previous to the pandemic, we've been managing things really cautiously. Like I said, we are in Order of Selection, all categories closed. We were starting to invite people in Category one, our most significant disability population and slowly while managing the budget judiciously. And what COVID did is because obviously the spending levels dropped so significantly, so quickly because of school closures, public transit closures, business closures, that was really a silver lining for us, and we were able to pick up the pace of our Order of Selection invites. And we actually got to open Category one this past June after being closed for over three years. So that was a big win, something we're proud of. The pandemic brought a lot of challenges and difficulties, but that was definitely a silver lining for our program and the people of disabilities in our state. They've been waiting a long time to get prepared for and back to work in regard to the pre employment transition services. We're really viewing things as what are the silver linings that came from this? We also were able to expend those funds. Just a really great opportunity to analyze our current service delivery methods and figuring out differently.

So we invested in virtual job shadow. We worked with our youth leadership forum and made that platform go totally virtual, which the youth were so engaged and very participatory. Traditionally, that group of students comes together one week each summer. Now they're meeting throughout the year, developing those relationships that are so important, as we talked about previously, and get to work on other Pre-Employment Transition Services outside of the school. But with this group of youth that they've worked with during the summer, so that was really cool. And I think the other silver lining through all of the shift, especially for our students to the virtual world, is we're giving them an opportunity to grow new transferable skills. How do you function in the virtual space? How do you set things up, things that we probably might not have touched on or addressed before, which can all be added to a resume now and be more competitive in the labor market? So I think that's pretty cool because I think some of these youth we might not have ever thought about, let's get on the computer and see what kind of skills we can build here.


Carol: Very cool. Glad you were able to open up that first category, too. That's super cool. Yes. So, Chanda, what do you think is your biggest fiscal challenge right now? And how are you mitigating or addressing that?


Chanda: Well, at this very moment, our biggest challenge is the state of the executive budget and the continuing resolution. We believe this to be our final maintenance effort penalty here. We have not received our penalty letter yet. Last time we received that in June. So it's really concerning November. We have not received that yet. On top of, we don't know what our grand award is actually going to look like because nobody's able to give us that information yet. So we're really managing in the dark of what actuals are going to look like. We have managed forward with that telescope, so we do have some carryover. So we know it's going to be fine, but we're really waiting for those letters and awards to come through. So we know that we're going to be fine. Just the reassurance that what we've done and what we've prepared for is going to be effective.


Carol: Well, fingers crossed this isn't like one of those years where we had like six CRs. You know, where you kept getting, is no good. Yeah. So, Allison, how about you? What's your biggest fiscal challenge right now and how are you mitigating or addressing that?


Allison: I think my budget director will tell you our biggest challenge will be our match, but it is a concern, most definitely. And I know we're going to have to go to legislators eventually, but I'm honestly going to say that my biggest concern is the decrease in expenditures. You know, with Florida being one of the big four states, we have a very large federal award that we have to spend every year. So with the pandemic and the decrease in the customers decrease in expenditures, our carry forward is extremely high. It's the highest that anyone knows it has ever been in Florida VR. So that really adds to that challenge of spending those dollars. I mean, it's typical for state to have a carry forward. Obviously, it's been in that second year, but that percentage that we typically carry forward is almost double right now. So that's just adds a whole lot of dollars when our customer count is still not up to where it was pre-pandemic. So it's all kind of connected because of those customers and spending that money on them. But we know that the VR process takes time. It's not like these folks are going to come in the door tomorrow and we could spend that money tomorrow. So it's really a strategic effort to make sure you're getting the customer in while also spending those carry forward dollars. To me, there are several ideas within my leadership team that we're all pondering. And of course, the first thing is that outreach, that marketing effort rebranding so that the individual disabilities know about the VR resource. Staff augmentation, that's something else that we are talking about here.

Florida is. A private public partnership, so we have a staff augmentation through service source, we have about one hundred direct positions that are out in the field that are actually funded through that contract through a private entity. So we are actually thinking about expanding that, hiring more staff through that contract so that we can serve more people and serve them more efficiently is the key. We have a great study that we're getting ready to start. So hopefully that's going to give us additional information about any adjustments we need to make with our rates and knowing that inflation has hit. I think the latest I saw was about 15 percent up from last year on groceries. But knowing that inflation, does that mean as an agency, we need to make some adjustments to our rates or our providers and all of our vendors out there? And then because we have all this big carry forward, it's a great time for us to make sure that we are addressing any of our technology needs or updates there so that staff have the resources that they need. So there's a lot of things obviously that are tangent within this. But my big concern right now is this large carry forward and be able to spin that within that two years or the one year program year.


Carol: Yeah, I think you're not alone in that. In fact, I just wanted to mention to folks. So David D’Arcangelo, he is the commissioner for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. He was on last month, but he was also talking about these projects they had done, and he was using it with real allotment dollars. But it would apply to carry forward. And if you went to his website, they have like 20 different projects they did that were really cool, like including the Rate study. But there are a lot of very interesting ideas on ways you could spend the money, but that it would be tangible for VR. So I just did want to mention that. So as cliché as it can be, knowledge is power, and I think it is especially true for fiscal matters. You really got to know your money. So how are you building your own knowledge around fiscal matters and also the knowledge of more of your team? And Allison, I'm going to throw that one to you.


Allison: I can sum it all up with one word, “Read”. how many of us have the best intentions to read the information coming out, but then you can never find the time to read it, not just read it, but find the time to read it. To me, that's a critical part is we have to stay on top of the information coming out from RSA, coming out from all of our partners, which is numerous and all the Technical Assistance Centers. But sometimes, that my reading list,, it gets off my priority list and actually during this virtual world, I don't know if you ladies have felt the same way with the last 18 20 months to me has been in a fast paced environment. Virtual is very fast and you don't have time to prepare for meetings. You just jump on these video meetings and you're like, What are we meeting about? So I recently incorporated with my leadership, Field leadership and headquarters leadership, is to designate one to two hours a week to block off your calendar to do nothing but catch up on the reading of those guidance’s policies. Go to a TA website. Find those resources as a group. My leadership team is participating in the several of the resources that the VRTAC-QM has posted, like the Twenty For…


Carol: The top 20 tips. Yeah.


Allison: We recently did that the last couple of weeks and we had a really good conversation about it because I have 11 people on my executive leadership team. Every one of them came out of that learning something none of them knew at all. And it was amazing to hear the conversation. But it solidifies what you read and how you interpret it, and then you expand that into how it works in Florida. And then you start seeing these ideas come up this creativity. So to me, there was a real benefit in making sure that your leaders have an opportunity to do that, then you have an opportunity to discuss it.


Carol: I love that you said that about reading. I still remember when those first grant award notice came probably the first time I got one and there's like 40 pages and I'm like, you know, we put it over to the side. And sure enough, there was some like big announcement in there. So I learned really quickly like, you need to read your grant award attachments because those are important, as are all those FAQs that come out. That's good advice. So Chanda, how about you? How are you building your own knowledge around fiscal matters and also the knowledge and more of your team?


Chanda: Well, funny because I also put read as number one, I put read your grant award notification, and I think I actually heard that first from you, Carol. When I heard that I went back to our fiscal folks as like, Have you read these things? Actually? No. So that was wise words from Carol that I brought and read your technical system circulars and read the Green Book. That's definitely these things are piloted right by my desk and flipped through daily. Also, Allison mentioned the VR Technical Assistance Center for Quality Management has helped us problem solve throughout this past year, navigate things and questions that come up again. We're pretty rookie status in regard to our fiscal management and learning a lot, so they've been a great resource to lean into. And also, as we talked about earlier, really making sure that every role of the agency understands that they are fiscal agents and what their decision making and rules are within their role as important. So the TAC has worked with us and we've already done one., Training with just the supervisors, as to, what that means to the supervisor role, so they understand and can accept and embrace their fiscal agent role because we've never referred to anybody that way, obviously, but I think it's important to change that identity a little bit in our next step will be reaching out and training all staff, counselors and administrative support staff. So they understand that they are also fiscal agents and play a role and need to know their roles for the healthy budget for the entire program.


Carol: Here, here, You've been listening to our Sara Clardy. Sara does some really great training around the whole issue of being a fiscal agent. I love that. So, Chanda, when you look at the bigger picture in the long haul for VR, what thoughts do you have on changes or approaches that could overall help the VR program?


Chanda: Well, I think since the passage of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, that VR counselor role is significantly evolved. As you noted earlier, people gravitate to work in VR because they love working with people, and we're continually looking for ways to ease the data, entry and management from the VR counseling role so the counselors can focus on the transformational guidance and counseling experience that they truly want to do, rather than the transactional data and fiscal management. The data is really meaningful, and I think it's really starting to tell a good story of what VR does, just the breadth of all the work we do. But ensuring that data is collected and rendered accurately has significantly impacted the identity of the VR counselors and the counseling relationship and has customer retention issues. So I don't know what the change would be, but that is definitely something that is happening an impact.


Carol: Yeah, you're probably hearing claps across the country. Other people are saying that very same thing. So how about you, Allison? If you were looking at the whole long haul for VR, what thoughts do you have on changes or approaches that could help the VR program?


Allison: Well, let me flip the question on you a little different, Carol. Let's say you went to your boxing class and something tragic happened, and you all of a sudden found yourself with a significant disability. And tomorrow you have no job, no income. I don't think our decisions don't put our customers first sometimes. And maybe it's because I came as a counselor, but that's where my decisions always try to lie with that customer. And the one thing about VR is we take a long time. If you did not have money coming in, Carol, you would probably be like worried about your house, worried about your food, worry about, you know, so many things that we're not even thinking about that's impacting that customer. Federal law says we got 60 days to do eligibility, 90 days to do a plan. Well, that's five months right there. If you don't have an agreed upon extension, five months of no income, no job, these customers VR is being viewed as, well. It's just too complicated. It takes too long to get where I want to be. I need a job now. So in my opinion, we really need to look at the efficiency and the process of the VR. I mean, how can we get these folks into employment quicker? I know careers definitely are going to take longer because a lot of times that takes training and we know that. But a lot of folks have got to get in and get that money coming in. And there's that workforce need on the business side that we've got to address as well. But I really feel like efficiency. We need to focus on that efficiency and making sure our customers are able to find that employment outcome at a good wage in a timely way, not two, three or four years. To me, that's… that's unacceptable.


Carol: Well said Allison, Well said. And I remember telling councilors at the Blind agency, you know, when they'd be frustrated with people coming in and they're kind of crabby and it's like, think about all the places they've been, you know, just trying to get here and get on the public transit and all the things that they went through just to get into this appointment. And how can we get engaged more quickly? And even though you can take that amount of time, do you want to take that amount of time? Like, can we streamline that? So I agree with you wholeheartedly. So Allison, what advice would you give to new directors and leaders to get their feet on the ground around finances? If you had a couple of good parting thoughts on that?


Allison: I would say find a fellow director kind of like me and you hear all the way we connected, but find someone that can be a mentor to you that's available and willing to do that for you. Because I know not all directors have that time commitment there, but find someone utilize the RSA, the technical centers. One thing we haven't mentioned is CSAVR, the Council of State Administrators for Vocational Rehabilitation. They have great resources and always there to support the directors as well, really finding that person that you can lead on. Like I say, find your tribe no matter where they're at. I have folks in so many states that I would not hesitate to call email, Hey, I have a question, do you have a minute and find out how they're doing that in their state and talk through it to see if it's possible in my state? So finding that person you trust and can lean on, I think, is critical for any director.


Carol: Well said. So Chanda, over to you for our last parting words of wisdom, what advice would you give new directors and leaders to get their feet on the ground around the finances?


Chanda: I'll echo again, what Allison said. Use your peers. Use your network at RSA, use CSAVR and the Technical Assistance Centers, there's so many experts out there you just got to find them. Don't be shy. But I've learned is people really love to share their expertise and people love VR. They want to make sure that your program is thriving and meeting the needs of people with disabilities in your states. So don't be shy. People really want to help to make sure that your programs are doing the best it can.


Carol: Well said, I do want to mention to our listeners that the VRTAC for Quality Management has a number of fiscal resources meant to help you and your staff navigate the enormous fiscal responsibilities of managing this complex federal program. You can go to Fiscal and Resource Quality Management. You're going to find regulations, topical information, best practices and some tools that we've developed. More coming all the time. And we have a list a mile long. Also feel free to reach out to us with any ideas you have for tools that can be of help to you. So thank you both for joining me today and for helping us to navigate the world of VR finances.


Allison: Thank you for having us.


Chanda: Thank you.


Speaker: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!