Transportation, funding and staffing were the main focus of a visit by Wisconsin State Sen. Patty Schachtner to BRIDGE for Community Life in Hudson on Monday, April 23.

Schachtner said it was important for her to make the visit.

"My whole career before being in this part has really been helping give voice to people who don't have voices," she said.

Transportation is one of the obstacles BRIDGE faces in providing its services. Human Resources and Program Supervisor Kristin Beckman said clients often have to rely on family members or taxis to get them to programs or work. The taxi rides often cost the wage earned at the job, or limit where a client can work in town.

"It really is the biggest barrier to employment, there's no question about it," BRIDGE Administrative and Marketing Director Ginny Ballantine said.

Transportation is an issue for more than just their clients, said BRIDGE Director Peg Gagnon, who is a part of the St. Croix County transit planning subcommittee. She said it also affects the elderly, as well as workers who don't have reliable transportation and can't afford to live close to their place of employment.

St. Croix County has been looking into the wider issue of transportation first with the subcommittee, and now with the recently-formed transit commission.

"Transportation is the big barrier to really define growth. If you want to define growth you have to have access," Schachtner said.

Schachtner said private rideshare companies are part of the solution, but as the area continues to grow, many new residents will come from metropolitan areas that have public transportation.

"Private public relationships is really the important part of it," Schachtner said, "but we have to really be thoughtful about the reality of public transportation, and it is needed."

Staffing is another large obstacle for BRIDGE, and other agencies like group homes.

Staff members in organizations like these take on a lot of responsibility in terms of care, including medical needs, while often making minimum wage.

Beckman said the organization is trying to raise the wage for those in this field.

"It's a higher level of care, so wanting to make sure we can bring on quality employees that can stay around too," Beckman said.

BRIDGE pays its day service staff above minimum wage, at $12.50 an hour, but that is still a struggle, Gagnon said. She said the reimbursement rates have not changed for the work since 2008.

When staffing is hard to find, BRIDGE board chair Nora Reid said parents end up taking on the burden.

"I think that some of the things that are happening on that state level funding are really kind of looking at pushing a lot of that burden back to families, so I think that's really concerning for a lot of us," Reid said.

About a third of the BRIDGE funding comes from grants and fundraising, Gagnon said.

"Fundraising and grant work, that truly isn't frosting anymore, it's part of the cake," Gagnon said.

Government funding that supports individuals with disabilities like the Medicaid program IRIS (Include Respect, I Self-Direct), children long-term care program, and children's waiver are used by the 50-plus regular BRIDGE clients to pay for services, and some families private pay. The program is also funded by school-contracts, though Gagnon said those are not as large as they used to be.

Gagnon said BRIDGE isn't looking for government to answer every problem.

"We know that's unrealistic," she said.

Still, she said they sacrifice a lot of time from the organization when discussions on Medicaid open up, and they have to work to protect that funding.

"My stomach just turns when they're going to open it up again, I thought, 'Gosh, there goes 6 months,'" Gagnon said.

The funding programs work, for families and for the organization, BRIDGE staff said.

Though fraud may be happening in the program, former BRIDGE chair George Zaske said the sense of scale is not what people think, and is not found at the family level.

Schachtner said fraud in the system is an easy target, but is often the result of mistakes.

Schachtner would like to set up another meeting with BRIDGE, herself and other representatives at the table to address these issues.

"We need families at the table, we need everybody at the table if we're going to make thoughtful decisions," she said.