Susan Hamm has been looking for a job - any kind of office job - for more than four months. The Madison woman, who has three children and suffers health problems from a car accident, was classified as "job ready" by W-2, Wisconsin's welfare program. As a result, she was denied $673 in monthly benefits.
"They told me I didn't qualify because I can get a job," she says. "It's frustrating."
And while Hamm searches for a job, she has no way to support her children. She gets food stamps and medical assistance - and nothing else. The family has quickly used up its time at the city's homeless shelters and is now living with friends.
"They've been nice enough to take me and my children in," she says. "Right now, we're homeless."
In June, a state appeals court ruled that Wisconsin cannot legally deny cash benefits to people like Hamm, who are deemed employable. Advocates were thrilled by the ruling, which meant that the state would have to start placing people in taxpayer-funded jobs.
But the implications of this decision are still being sorted out. And the version of the state budget passed this month by the GOP-controlled Assembly would essentially undo it, by explicitly creating a "job ready" category that could be used to deny benefits. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) declines to disclose who authored the provision.
Lynn Green, head of Dane County's Human Services, says the state should seriously consider passing this provision, because counties lack the funds to heed the appellate court's ruling.
"I'm not saying it wouldn't be a good thing to pay these people," she says. "But if the state isn't going to increase the amount of money in W-2, then we have to look to cut services."
Rachel Krinsky, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network, says most of the people who apply for W-2 are deemed job-ready, regardless of their ability to get and hold a job. "These are people who have little education or skills. They don't have cars and they do have children."
Interfaith Hospitality Network often works with women who are denied cash benefits. One woman spent nine months looking for a job, before finally being hired at McDonald's. "Fortunately," says Krinsky, "she was in our transitional housing, so she could survive with no funds."
Hamm, meanwhile, is going on yet another job interview this week. "I've got a family to take care of," she says. "I can't have no income."
A friend in need
Mocha is a hero. The large brown service dog not only helps Lisa Hoon by opening doors, making change and turning on her computer, he has also saved two people from drowning. Hoon, who is paralyzed, once fell underwater in a hot tub. Mocha hooked a paw under her arm and helped pull her out. Another time, the dog summoned help to an elderly man who was drowning in a pool.
"He's really cool," says Hoon. "He just wants to help out."
Now Mocha needs help. While chasing a ball in the park in May, he stumbled, tearing a ligament in his knee and breaking a tooth. He needed two surgeries, which cost $5,000.
Hoon asked the UW Vet School, which has a special fund to pay for the care of service animals, for assistance. But the fund was out of money.
"They wouldn't even pay for part of it," says Hoon. "That fund should not be empty."
Vet School spokeswoman Tania Banak says the fund, which starts offering grants July 1, is already out of money for this year, too. "There is only a limited amount of money available each year," says Banak. "It's first-come, first-serve."
The fund, which also helps police dogs, only has about $5,000 in it each year. Mocha's surgeries, says Banak, "would have wiped it out."
And so Hoon is holding a fund-raiser this Sunday, July 29, at the East Side Club, starting at 1 p.m., to raise money to offset her cost for Mocha's care. She's gotten area businesses to donate prizes for a raffle and silent auction, and she's lined up musical guests, including Tony Castañeda and Andy Ewen. Any extra money raised will be donated to other service animals or rescue groups.
Mocha still limps, but he follows Hoon diligently around town as she organizes his fund-raiser. Gazing fondly at her dog, Hoon says, "He's done so much for people."
New rules for lake properties
The Yahara Lakes Association officially backs a Dane County proposal to change zoning requirements to make it easier to develop waterfront property. But Sal Troia, a member of the group's board, thinks it has made a grave mistake.
"You could build a house that could cover the whole lot," he says. "It will contribute to the degradation of the lakes. You'll have so much runoff - it's going to be an absolute mess."
The proposal, by County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz, would exempt people who own substandard lots plotted before 1950 from restrictions on size, width, density and coverage. Since most land was plotted before then, an estimated 10,000 lake lots in Dane County would be exempt. Currently, owners seeking exemptions from these standards must get approval from the Dane County's Board of Adjustment.
Bruskewitz says there's no evidence that shoreland properties hurt the lakes: "It's a myth. If we took all the development off every shoreland, that's not going to clean up our lakes." Instead, she advises controlling agriculture and stormwater runoff.
But Bruskewitz says the exclusion for lot coverage was a drafting error. She intends to amend it to maintain the current rule that dwellings occupy no more than 30% of any given lot.
Troia still thinks owners who want more size, width and density should have to go to the Board of Adjustment for a variance. "It's a process set up, peopled by citizens, to look at each idea," he says.
Though the board rarely rejects any applications, Bruskewitz calls it "a sham." She notes that citizens must pay $350 to get a variance. "The real cynical side of me says it's a way to fund the zoning department."
The biggest thing in Fitchburg
Fitchburg Mayor Tom Clauder is so proud of the new SuperTarget opening in his city this week, he's calling people just to make sure they've heard about it.
"You can buy everything under one roof - groceries, liquor, undergarments," he enthuses. "Fitchburg has never seen anything like this."
Clauder knows there's been controversy over the size of the store. At 175,000 square feet, the SuperTarget will be the largest retail outlet in Dane County - at least until the fall, when Wal-Mart opens a 204,000-square-foot Supercenter in Monona. But Clauder says the store is a coup for Fitchburg, which has been so far unable to lure major businesses - such as Epic or the headquarters of Famous Footwear.
The store is part of an 80-acre redevelopment of an old quarry. Fitchburg spent $3.5 million in tax-increment financing on the project, but Clauder says the investment will pay off in more property taxes and 400 new jobs. He admits not knowing if the jobs pay a living wage, but says Target has been recruiting in places like Allied Drive.
"They're good neighbors," he attests. "When it comes down to it, the actual store itself and the redevelopment of the quarry - it's pretty hard to argue against."