Carin Johnson has $17 in her checking account, less than half a tank of gas in her car, and is running low on groceries. So you'd think a cost-of-living increase in her monthly Social Security disability payments would help her out. In fact, getting the increase made Johnson lose the federal assistance she received to pay her Medicare premium.
"I got my raise and lost my Medicare premium," she says. "They found a way to cut a lot of us off."
The 56-year-old Madison resident receives Social Security disability payments for multiple sclerosis and a stroke. This year, the federal government raised her disability payment by 2.3%, an extra $24 a month.
But eligibility for many assistance programs, including the one that covers Medicare premiums for low-income individuals, is based on the federal poverty level - which only increased 1.9%. Johnson, who gets less than $13,000 a year in disability, no longer qualifies. She'll have to pay the $96 monthly Medicare premium herself.
"You know the powers that be decided we can get X number of people off the rolls and save X amount of dollars if we do this," she charges.
Ron Konkol, a staff assistant at the local Social Security Administration office, says the increase in disability payments happens yearly. "It's tied to inflation," he explains. "It's an automatic calculation."
Konkol says Johnson was probably on an "eligibility cliff," meaning she just barely qualified for Medicare premium assistance. "Nudge over a little bit and you fall off the cliff."
Mitch Hagopian, an attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, notes that many federal programs will disregard Social Security's cost-of-living increase if it bumps someone off assistance, but the program that covers Medicare premiums does not. "It's a problem," he says. "It probably is happening to some number of people each year."
Johnson has requested an appeal, and an administrative law judge is hearing her case this week. If the decision is not reversed, she's not sure how she'll pay for her Medicare premiums - or anything else.
"Living on Social Security and trying to maintain a home is quite a task," she says. "To lose nearly $100 is painful."
Planning a new direction?
Two members of the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission who voted last winter for stronger new development rules have been replaced.
"After the vote, I received a number of calls from people in our organization who were upset," says Tom Clauder, head of the Dane County Cities and Villages Association. "The decision was made to make a change."
The group gets three picks on the 13-member commission, which sets county planning policy. It replaced Joe Chase, whose term expired, with John Murray. Chase had voted to ax the so-called flexibility factor allowing unfettered development within a designated urban service area.
Meanwhile, the Dane County Towns Association replaced Kris Hampton, who supported the new rules, with Phil Van Kampen.
Now environmental activists are urging Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to retain commission members George Kamperschroer and Anne Sayers, who supported the rules. Kampershroer, the commission's vice chair, has come under fire for holding a February vote on the rules even though three commission members were absent.
In a recent email (see the related downloads at top right), Cieslewicz called the new rules "a bad decision for our environment" because they encourage developers to abandon projects within the service area and look for land in rural areas instead. He added that "the process by which the decision was made has been damaging to the new [planning commission] as an institution."
Caryl Terrell of the Sierra Club met with Cieslewicz last week to persuade him that, as acting chair, Kamperschroer was obligated to allow the issue to come to a vote: "I think the mayor hadn't really thought about the position George was in."
Terrell worries that losing Kamperschroer and Sayers could weaken the commission's environmental stance. "We've already lost two advocates," she says. "The Towns Association and Cities and Villages moved quickly. It's a good sign that the mayor hasn't just done a quick assessment of the situation and made his decision."
A good place to get busted
In February, Madison resident Joy First and two others were arrested for an antiwar protest at Hilldale Mall. Last week, Municipal Court Judge Dan Koval sentenced them to 11 hours of community service, which they can perform at any 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Luckily for First, she's already volunteering for one: the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, which has organized some of the antiwar protests. First, who estimates she's been arrested about 20 times for antiwar activities, has used the group for her community service obligations in the past.
"I put down my number of hours and hand it in," she says. "Nobody's said anything."
First believes using her sentence to promote the cause for which she got in trouble makes perfect sense. "I think our country is in really bad shape right now," she says. "Speaking out against our government is the highest form of community service."
She praises Dane County as a good place to get arrested, compared to Washington, D.C. "There, the prosecutor wants to throw the book at us. Here it's much friendlier."
The day after First was sentenced to community service for the Hilldale action, she went back to the mall for another protest. She was not arrested, but police did ask her group to leave.
"My personal safety and comfort doesn't matter," she says. "I need to do this to make a better world for my children and grandchildren."
While in town last week to film a special show on Madison's unsolved murder cases, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren stumbled across another alleged scandal: Televisions in the Dane County Regional Airport are not allowed to broadcast Fox News.
Van Susteren wrote on her blog: "I am in the airport in Madison and an employee in uniform just came up to me and said, 'You did not hear this from me, but we can't watch Fox in this airport.'" She was told this decree came from an unnamed Dane County Board supervisor.
"It's pretty funny," laughs airport spokeswoman Sharyn Wisniewski. "It's not true."
Wisniewski confirms that the airport airs only CNN in its public waiting areas. But she calls this "something of an industry standard," not a mandate from any county supervisor.
The airport is now weighing whether to purchase CNN's special "airport channel," which packages news stories and weather reports relevant to airline travelers.
Televisions elsewhere in the airport, "in the concession areas, including restaurants and retail shops, or in offices, can be tuned to other channels," says Wisniewski, "including Fox."
In the money
Gov. Jim Doyle is holding a fund-raiser on June 10 at the University Ridge Golf Course in Verona. The suggested contribution is $1,250 per golfer, with a "platinum level" sponsorship going for $5,500.
Doyle's fund-raiser makes Dane County Exec Kathleen Falk's event, held a week later, seem like a bargain. For just $50 or $100, you can wish Falk a happy 57th birthday at the near-east-side home of her good friend (and former county supervisor) Dick Wagner.