Child welfare tops underfunding woes

by Emmitt B. Feldner
For The Beacon

SHEBOYGAN – The child welfare crisis is the greatest issue facing Sheboygan County – and should be as well for state government.

County Administrator Adam Payne made that statement in his report at the April County Board meeting and supervisors made the same case earlier in the month at their monthly breakfast meeting with local legislators.

“One of the most critical crises we’re faced with now is the child welfare crisis,” Payne said in outlining state budget issue papers for the board.

The number of county children in out-of-home care tripled from 2012 to 2017, from 73 to 219, according to Payne. That created an increase in out-of-home care expenses for the county of 55 percent and a concurrent increase in property tax levy for those services.

“This is a growing issue because of drug and alcohol abuse,” Payne stated. Drug and alcohol abuse account for 70 percent of open child welfare cases, he added.

“Parents are unable to care for themselves, let alone their children,” Payne noted.

At the legislative breakfast April 8, supervisors called on local legislators to support Gov. Tony Evers proposal to allocate $15 million more annually for children and family aids.

Payne pointed out that state aid to the county for such programs remained “essentially flat” from 2010 to 2017. Aid was increased only $5 million for the entire state in 2018.

The Wisconsin Counties Association had requested a $30 million increase in state children and family aids in the next budget. Evers’ proposal of $15 million must still gain legislative approval.

“I feel sorry for some of these legislators. Everybody is coming at them with their hands out,” Payne conceded.

The other issue papers presented by Payne, prepared by supervisors and county staff, addressed concerns ranging from district attorney staffing to transportation needs.

The county is seeking legislative approval of a proposal from Evers to add 19.6 new assistant district attorney positions statewide, as well as funding the upgrading of 6.9 part-time positions statewide to full-time.

“Independent studies have shown that we are four and a half positions short,” in the county district attorney’s office, Payne told the board. “We have been talking about it for years. It is a concern and it is a growing one,” Payne elaborated. He cited a continuous turnover in the office and praised District Attorney Joel Urmanski and his staff for coping well with the continuing understaffing.

“The state needs to step up,” Payne commented.

In addition, better compensation is needed for court-appointed public defenders. Payne noted that the state-funded rate, $40 an hour, is the lowest in all 50 states. “I can’t find a carpenter or a plumber $40 an hour,” he observed.

While the one-half percent county sales tax has enabled the county Highway Department to keep with maintaining county roads, “that is but one piece of the pie,” for transportation funding, said Payne.

“The state has to step up with transportation funding,” he continued.

Speaking of transportation aid to counties, “Over the past decade, state funding has slipped to under 20 percent,” the issue paper noted. “Yet, road construction costs have outpaced inflation.”

“We’re hoping our legisators will help take the lead and raise awareness,” for the need for increased state aid, Payne told the board.

As he and many supervisors have for a number of years, Payne pointed out that state shared revenue has decreased or remained flat annually for the past two decades.

At the same time, he went on, unfunded and underfunded state mandated programs have increased in number and cost while state-imposed tax levy limits have not kept pace.

Levy increases are limited annually to the total percentage of new construction in a municipality in a year by state law.

“I have yet to have anyone tell me what the connection is between net new construction,” and increased costs for county services, such as law enforcement, Payne noted.

“I’m not aware of any businesses or successful organizations that are able to maintain or grow year to year with less-than-inflation revenue growth,” Payne stated.

The issue papers presented by Payne also called for a rate increase for nursing homes as included in the governor’s proposed budget. “Medicaid underfunds Wisconsin’s nursing facilities by $78.48 per resident day,” Payne stated.

That means for the county’s health care facility, Rocky Knoll, “We’re struggling to hire qualified people out there,” Payne told the board.

The county administrator urged supervisors to share the budget issue papers with their legislators and talk with them about the issues and the county’s needs.

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