Paul VanderVelde (left) heard about proposed cuts to a YMCA program just days before a Dane County committee vote; Supv. Heidi Wegleitner (right) is concerned about the budgeting process.
By the time Paul VanderVelde, a senior director at Madison's East YMCA, heard of the proposal to defund a 24-year-old YMCA program that provides recreational activities for developmentally-disabled residents, it was days away from a final committee vote.
I'm really thankful we heard about it in time so we could explain what we do and what the impact of losing that funding would be," he says.
The Y Adaptive Program was one of four social service programs to face sudden, and seemingly arbitrary, elimination over the last few weeks as Dane County's Health and Human Needs Committee haggled over the 2015 spending outlays in the county executive's "Shared Values, Shared Responsibility" budget package.
The proposed cuts sparked a backlash against the county from faith-based organizations, angry at the continual expectation they will do more, while receiving little county support.
"There is widespread ignorance about what the faith community is doing," says Michael Schuler, senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Madison. "We provide support on an ongoing basis, keeping in mind the attrition churches have experienced has spread them pretty thin."
Making matters worse was that Health and Human Needs introduced and approved the cuts in the same meeting, depriving the public of an opportunity to speak.
Like VanderVelde, most learned of the cuts while they were en route to a final committee vote.
"The process this year really bothered me," says Supv. Heidi Wegleitner, a Health and Human Needs Committee member. "I tried to pass motions to delay votes on items involving cuts to agencies that hadn't been informed. It's not that any of the initiatives were bad ideas; it just didn't seem like a fair process at all."
No wiggle room
Breaking with tradition, County Executive Joe Parisi didn't leave much room for the board to make an imprint, using up most of the tax levy allowed under caps imposed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
"Joe didn't leave us any room to do anything," says Wegleitner. "So anything different in terms of funding meant cutting things."
For decades, county money available for human needs has stagnated, frustrating the non-profits that contract with the county to provide services. Those frustrations boiled over earlier this month after the county's Health and Human Services director Lynn Green said she didn't see a need to continue funding a clothes distribution program because it would be "a good thing for the faith-based [communities]... to take on."
The suggestion was made as the Health and Human Needs Committee considered cutting $10,000 from a clothing distribution program organized by Community Action Coalition to help fund the county's fledgling Community Restorative Court, a jail diversion program for young adults 17 to 25.
In a meeting recap, former Madison Ald. Brenda Konkel wrote, "Faith communities used to fill gaps, but it seems that they are becoming a dumping grounds for some of the most vital needs in our community."
Konkel, whose Tenant Resource Centerwent on the chopping block when changes to sole-source bidding rules were proposed at the last minute, said the same thing is happening to volunteer groups.
"More and more we are being expected to do things for free because it is our mission," she wrote.
In response, Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison Area Urban Ministry, rallied area faith leaders to a press conference outside the City-County Building Nov. 5, to denounce what many see as the county's ongoing failure to make good on its commitments.
Ketcham said at the conference: "We are here today as people of faith to call on the Dane County Board to do the right thing, to stop... touting innovative programs that they fund by cutting existing services that fill a vital need in our community."
Give and take
In response to Green's call for the faith community to do more, Ketcham presented information highlighting what religious groups already do. A dollar figure for what these groups contribute is still being tallied. But the list includes, among other things:
- Four Fitchburg-area congregations support a food pantry that has raised and spent $20,000 already this year.
- Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church offers assistance with shelter and utilities.
- First Congregational United Church of Christ provides around $20,000 in direct support and $26,000 in indirect support to services like food pantries and eviction prevention.
- Grace Episcopal Church houses a men's homeless shelter.
"It isn't only money we give," says First Unitarian's Schuler. "There is volunteering, labor, time."
For at least 15 years, the Health and Human Services' budget has been an annual disappointment to both those who say it's too big and those who say it isn't big enough.
Parisi has pointed out that the county's human services budget increases every year -- both in local tax levy and outside revenue sources.
Next year, for example, the human services budget, if approved by the board next week, will increase more than $9 million, consuming $261 million of the county's $550 million operating budget.
But critics say the yearly increases haven't kept pace with inflation. And some of the annual budget increases go toward higher employee salaries and benefits, not more services.
Complicating matters is that about 75% of the county's human services budget comes from the state and federal governments, as well as grants and other revenue. County taxpayers make up the remaining 25% of the budget.
However, over the past 13 years, revenue from outside sources has exceeded budget estimates, meaning the department hasn't needed to kick in as much money from local taxpayers. But rather than allowing the department to carry the surplus into the following year, the county's portion is returned to the county's general fund.
"Any dollars returned to the reserve fund are available to protect county services against state budget cuts -- which, frankly, is a very real concern to us given the results of the recent election," says Josh Wescott, Parisi's chief-of-staff.
Ketcham and others would like at least some of any excess money to stay within the human services department. "What we would like to see is a human services reserve fund established where some of that general purpose revenue would be allocated," she says.
An amendment proposed last month by Wegleitner to establish such a fund died in committee. And there appears to be little desire among county leaders to even discuss imposing new fees or raising taxes to increase revenue.
"There is not a lot of incentive to serve the needs of people who are not players in the game," says Schuler. "We see it at the federal level and at the state level, but when we start to see it at the county level it gets a little scary."
Around two-dozen people testified against the Health and Human Needs proposed cuts during a Nov. 5 meeting of the Personnel & Finance Committee, the budget's last stop before going to the board for final approval.
In addition to the $10,000 funding cut to Community Action Coalition were proposals to defund existing programs. One would give $10,000 budgeted for the Canopy Center, which assists victims of family sexual abuse, to Jewish Social Services of Madison, for a program serving low-income immigrants.
The other would give nearly $50,000 budgeted for the Y Adaptive Program, which serves 130 people, to an eight-bed homeless youth shelter operated by Briarpatch that wouldn't open its doors until June, provided it secures the needed supplemental funding.
Asked during the meeting how he chose which programs to axe, Human Needs chair Jeremy Levin, said he simply looked at non-mandated programs and "made a decision." Levin did not respond to Isthmus' subsequent requests for comment.
In the end, all three programs had their funding restored, while the Tenant Resource Center's fate remains uncertain. Health and Human Needs even managed to find a little extra for the funding sought by Briarpatch and the Restorative Justice Court.
The YMCA's VanderVelde said he made some important connections as a result of the proposed cuts, adding that next year he'll be paying attention when budget season begins.
"I'm glad they restored the funding," he says, "but I still don't quite understand the process."