RALEIGH — Mildred Bartley-Fox guided her motorized wheelchair onto a stage outside the legislature Tuesday to try to save the job of the state employee who changed her life.
Bartley-Fox, 62, has multiple sclerosis. She cannot walk, dress herself or prepare her own meals. She is legally blind and unable to use her left arm.
But for the regular visits from Kim Stewart, a recreational therapist with the state Department of Health and Human Services, Bartley-Fox said, she would have had to move into a nursing home long ago. Stewart helps her focus on what she can accomplish, not what she can't.
"She has taught me to stand up for myself," Bartley-Fox said of her therapist at a rally by the State Employees Association of North Carolina. "I'm no longer confined to the four walls of my bedroom. I have freedom."
Bartley-Fox, who is from Rocky Mount, could lose that crucial assistance.
Stewart, who has worked for the state for more than 28 years, was recently informed by her supervisor that her job will be eliminated because of budget cuts. On Tuesday, she joined more than 350 state employees in blue T-shirts who came to Raleigh to lobby lawmakers against cutting jobs and state services.
"Unless the General Assembly acts, I will not be able to do the job I am so passionate about - serving the disabled," said Stewart, who faces unemployment less than two years before reaching the 30-year threshold for full state retirement. "On a piece of paper, I am just another position being eliminated. But I have a name, and I matter."
Dana Cope, the executive director of SEANC, questioned the wisdom of a budget proposal backed by Democrats that would provide $39 million in tax breaks for private businesses. Cope said the tax breaks are touted as a way to create 1,500 jobs. He pointed out that proposed cuts to the UNC system could cost 1,700 state jobs.
Saying he risked being accused of advocating "class warfare," Cope argued that it makes no sense to shift government resources to the private sector in the midst of a recession. The foundering economy only increases the need for the critical services provided by government workers, he said.
"It is class warfare," Cope said. "It's about the haves and the have-nots."
Jimmy Davis, an employee at the N.C. Department of Correction, said he lost his job when the state prison where he worked was closed to save money. He moved to another position at the Division of Community Corrections, and now his job may be in danger again.
Lawmakers are considering shifting some of the responsibilities for monitoring offenders who are on probation or parole to private contractors.
Davis said the state tried privatizing prisons, only to take the facilities over again when the for-profit companies failed to meet expectations.
"We don't need privatization," Davis said. "We need support from our legislators."
Bartley-Fox, a former state employee herself, said lawmakers shouldn't make shortsighted cuts that eliminate essential services. Full-time nursing care would cost taxpayers more than the assistance she receives now, she said.
"You never know when you might become disabled," she said from her wheelchair. "I never expected this to happen to me. And in a breath, it can happen to you."
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