County’s non-profit compromise

(First published in the November 21, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Three non-profits will retain funding and county board sends a message to the state: pay your share


County Chairman Kurt Gibbs

The Marathon County budgeting process was expected to get heated this year. Funding cuts to area non-profit agencies were baked into the budget, and it got worse as county leaders pitted prevention and cure against each other.

But when the county board passed its 2020 budget last Thursday night, five non-profits came out with funding intact, and the board rejected a measure that would have taken money from the Start Right program to fund a new prosecutor and support staff in the DA’s office.

Thursday night saw no less than three meeting hours and four potential amendments. And that followed an even longer meeting Tuesday night, in which public comment first began at 11:30 pm in a meeting that started at 8 pm. The cuts to non-profits — 25% less funding than the county had previously provided to them — drew a greater than usual interest in the budget meeting, normally attended by few. 

Ultimately, the board chose to reject a measure that would have taken $156,100 from Start Right — which would have led to staff reductions and the closure of rural play and learn centers — in order to divert money to the DA’s office.


District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon in a presentation Tuesday said workloads continue to climb as the number of prosecutors funded by the state (prosecutors are state employees) have remained stagnant. The Republican-led legislature had proposed that Marathon County get 4.5 additional prosecutors in the latest state budget, but under a change from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, one of those was shifted to Milwaukee, an odd move because Milwaukee is already above state-recommended staffing levels. And the latest county budget removed the 2.5 prosecutors the county was funding, leaving the DA’s office with a net gain of one.

But the county board overall didn’t think it was right to pit one agency against another, and supervisors spoke about how removing funding from a program designed to protect children vulnerable to abuse and neglect wasn’t exactly the right way to ensure fewer children end up in the criminal justice system as they age. The board rejected the amendment, but some expressed they would like more Marathon County-centric data on the Start Right program’s effectiveness.

The board did approve an amendment to continue funding some non-profits. Using money saved from administrator salaries from the time period after Brad Karger retires but before a new one is hired, the county will continue its previous funding for The Women’s Community, North Central Community Action Program, and United Way’s 2-11.

County Chairman Kurt Gibbs, though supporting the amendment, cautioned about the use of a one-time fund for covering an ongoing expense. But supporters say it buys time for the non-profits and the board. Those three non-profits are ranked in the “third quartile” in the county’s priority based budgeting system — everything in the county is ranked from first (most crucial) to fourth.

It also restored funding cuts to the boot camp at the Entrepreneurial and Education Center and to the Marathon County Historical Society. They were ranked in the fourth quartile, but were funded due to their job creation, and cultural and educational value, respectively.

The board also tabled indefinitely a proposal that would have cut the county board in half, from 38 to 19. The county is starting a task force that will study the issue instead.