As part of its coverage of the campaign for Dane County executive, Isthmus is asking candidates a series of questions about governance. Spencer Zimmerman did not respond.
Is Dane County adequately spending on human services? Should services be expanded or cuts made? In either case, where would you expand or cut?
The Human Services budget is over half of the total county budget. It is our duty to serve those who truly need our help. The County purchases services from hundreds of agencies for children, the elderly, for mental health care, for those with physical and developmental disabilities. A systematic analysis is needed to determine which programs work. Cut those that don't.
I served on Health and Human Needs Committee for six years. We know programs like Drug Court work because the results have been tracked and analyzed. Expand it. It is likely that federal and state funding to counties for human services will be cut. I would open the doors for programs that work and have no/minimal cost to the County, such as Alcoholics Anonymous; but there is a three-month wait for someone in the jail -- a pitiful response to people who are in jail because of alcohol abuse. I worked with the police chief, Dane County Gang Task Force, and a private business in Madison to conduct a pilot program last summer where young gang members got jobs and life coaching. There was minimal cost to the County and huge dividends to the Meadow Wood neighborhood.
Yes, the county is spending adequately on human service programs. Under my leadership, county budgets have preserved funding for important areas such as mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment programs, child welfare and other human services while holding the line on taxes.
This stands in stark contrast to Milwaukee County under Scott Walker, where the mental health system is in tatters and assistance programs were in such a state of disrepair that the state had to step in and take over. I fear this indicates what the future may hold for State of Wisconsin human services. With Walker at the helm, more committed to the welfare of corporations than of people, it is more important than ever that county and local government leaders are committed to preserving these essential services. As county executive, I will continue to fight to protect these vital programs for Dane County residents.
We must be prepared to do more with less in all areas of county bovernment, but protecting human services from deep cuts during budget time is a priority for me. We know that when we address the root causes of the problems in our community, and when we invest in solutions up front, we can save money, time, and resources in the long run -- in addition to helping families in our community succeed.
We do not yet know what kind of budget hand we will be dealt, however, and that makes questions like this difficult. The county will be affected by the new political reality in state government, but we will not know how until Governor Walker reveals his budget. Will shared revenue be cut? Will it be frozen?
Our approach must be surgical. We must analyze where our money is being spent, and make sure that it is being spent on programs and projects that are proven to work, or that can be adapted to work in Dane County.
For many years, Dane County has been at the forefront of support for human service funding. We should all be proud of that fact. A society that does not protect those in need is one that is doomed to fail. If the Walker administration's political rhetoric becomes reality, they will undoubtedly attempt to balance the state budget on the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. That is criminal -- and it's something we cannot allow to happen in Dane County. My top priority in these tough times will be to protect the needs of our elderly, our developmentally disabled, and those with mental illness. To do otherwise would amount to neglect of what has made our community so strong for so many years.
One area that we need to aggressively pursue is to finally implement Family Care. This is a program that will save tax dollars, both in the short and long run, and will allow our most vulnerable citizens more independence in their personal and professional lives. Hopefully, the Walker administration will not cut this lifeline as well.
Once Governor Walker's budget is introduced, we'll have a better idea of funding levels and any cuts that may be necessary. But in this economy, any cut would be painful to real people. Tough decisions will have to be made.
This is personal to me. I was raised by a single mother on the edge of poverty. But, this is the wrong question. We shouldn't ask as a starting point "are we spending enough on human services?" Instead, we should ask: Are the programs and services we fund and operate actually helping families escape poverty? Are we matching those in need with what they need? Are we creating ladders out of our safety net and into family-supporting jobs? With poverty in Dane County at a new high and one in 10 children living in poverty, it's clear that that we aren't anywhere close to addressing the level of need.
I will invest in new ways to measure the outcomes county programs are achieving for families, and I will collect better data on what our programs are accomplishing -- or not accomplishing.
I will reward agencies that find innovative ways to serve families. I will also conduct an assessment of our community's needs, involving agencies and low-income individuals in a prioritization process.
I will use this data to radically change the budget process that currently forces our increasingly over-burdened social service providers to show up and fight for scraps every year.