Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, flanked by a phalanx of fellow officials and human service providers that dramatically outnumbered the reporters in the room, today unveiled a package of county initiatives aimed at combating the abuse of alcohol.
"We can make a difference in a problem that is bringing our whole country down," said Falk, listing a range of problem drinking categories in which Wisconsin tops the nation. "There are steps we can take to change our culture and uplift our community."
Falk proposed five initiatives that will be undertaken at the county level. One involves identifying and intervening in the lives of middle-school students who are already using and abusing alcohol. Falk said the program would expand upon the existing Project HUGS program now serving are high school students. She cited a county youth survey conducted in 2005 showing that nearly one in three 7th and 8th graders in Dane County had engaged in binge drinking -- defined as five of more drinks -- in the past year.
Stacey Slotty, executive director of Project HUGS, made a point about the importance of reaching student this age. "If you look at anyone with serious, serious alcohol problems" -- the kind that land people on the streets or in jail -- "they started in middle school."
Falk also said the county would be funding additional slots for alcohol abuse intervention and treatment. One program, known as "brief motivational interviewing," is aimed at working cooperatively with people to help them identify their own reasons for making a change in their lives regarding their use of alcohol.
Finally, Falk said the Dane County Sheriff's Office would be adding 1,000 hours a year of drunk driving enforcement on Friday and Saturday nights.
Falk and others, including county Supv. Brett Hulsey, argued that treating people with alcohol abuse problems made economic sense. Falk said that just under half of the people serving sentences in the Dane County jail are there for drunk driving and other alcohol-related offenses. The cost of keeping a person in jail runs just under $30,000 a year. Said Hulsey, "This makes sense from the taxpayers' point of view."
Falk said her initiatives are just part of a larger strategy. In October, she will announce ideas aimed at changing the culture of drinking. Falk declined to give specifics, other than that this effort would involve "coalition building" among various interest groups. Finally, Falk said she will be approaching the Wisconsin Legislature with a package of proposed laws.