The county’s crush

(First published in the October 17, 2019 issue of City Pages)

High turnover in the understaffed DA’s office. Phasing out nonprofit support. Marathon County’s budget already is taxed to the max by levy limits, and things won’t get easier.

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In the 1950s, David Clark Everest, for whom D.C. Everest High School is named, sent a letter to the Marathon County Board. He sought funding for a new organization called the Marathon County Historical Society, which Everest helped found. The county has helped support the organization ever since, in its efforts to preserve local historical records and buildings.

Today, the Historical Society is one of several local non-profits whose county funding will be phased out, beginning with a 25% reduction in the county’s 2020 budget. Other traditionally supported organizations, including The Women’s Community, United Way, Crime Stoppers, and the Boys and Girls Club, face the same incremental cuts as the county plans to phase out most all support of non-profits.

It’s not a new idea. County Administrator Brad Karger, preparing his last county budget before retirement, says the concept has come up every year since as long as he can remember. The argument always goes, from the perspective of county leaders: If we have trouble paying for mandated services, why fund non-profits, which we’re not mandated to support? And every year the idea of hanging the nonprofits out to dry is shot down by a majority of the board.

This year is different, and that has agency leaders nervous. For the first time, the plan to reduce non-profit funding is being proposed by the administrator in his budget. In the past, the idea was thrown out by a board member or two but never gained traction. Changing this budget and its roughly 25% reduction in nonprofit support will require the board to pass an amendment.

The county is in such a budget crush that raising its property tax rate just slightly to help support community agencies isn’t an option, because of state imposed levy limits. Like many other municipalities and counties, Marathon County is “taxed to the max,” Karger says.

During Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the state introduced tax levy limits — caps on how much municipalities, including counties, are allowed to raise property taxes. In 2011, under Gov. Scott Walker, the state made levy limits even more restrictive, tying the increase a local government can tax to net new construction. In other words, a municipality can collect a larger tax levy only with a bigger tax base (overall property value).

In reality, though, levy caps don’t account for inflation — both standard inflation of about 2%, and construction inflation that’s generally more like 5%. This creates a deficit that gets worse every year, because leaders like Karger argue their local budgets already have been cut to the bone for several years.

Levy limits also can’t account for increases that are harder to index. No index could have predicted the opioid crisis — a pain medication epidemic of addiction that’s led to obvious increased costs such as law enforcement and incarceration, and less obvious ones, such as out of home child placements. Marathon County leaders are budgeting an increase of $550,000 for 2020 to keep up.

Even the county’s new wheel tax, which started in 2017 and brings in about $3 million annually to help pay for road maintenance, hasn’t been enough to mitigate budget shortfalls.

The county’s total proposed 2020 budget is $171 million, of which $50.7 million is paid through the local property tax levy. (The balance comes from state and federal funds, other revenues and fees.)

Another difference this year is that the county has been employing for the last few years a new system called priority based budgeting. Well, employing isn’t really the right word. The county has been tabulating all the things it funds into categories. Essentials are ranked in the first quadrant; nice-to-haves are ranked in the fourth, where most funding of non-profits are ranked. So far, the priority based budgeting model has been a theory — the county hasn’t really made any cuts based on it.

That changes this year. The county budget started off about $1.2 million short from the previous year. It’s a challenge Karger is accustomed to facing, and this year county funding to non-profits are going to make up part of that shortfall.

The plan is to cut 25% of its funding from each of the non-profits it supports. In total, reducing nonprofit support by more than $100,000—from nearly $500,000 in 2019 to around $389,850 for 2020.

For example, The Women’s Community, which generally received $80,000, will see that county support go down 25% each year until it’s phased out completely. Same for the Historical Society’s traditional $54,000, and the $25,000 for the Boys & Girls Club’s Health Teens program.

The non-profits were contacted in fall 2018 to warn them the reductions were coming incrementally beginning in 2020, rather than cutting off funding in one fell swoop. By 2023, the plan goes, most nonprofits will no longer receive funding from the county.

These cuts represent the first real implementation of the county’s priority based budgeting. And they’ll have a real impact, a strain on area programs. More directly, decreased and eventually no county funding will impact some organizations’ ability to secure matching grants.

Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s office is struggling. That department requested two positions, which, if unfilled, could impact programs such as the OWI and Drug courts.

High turnover in District Attorney’s office


District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon urged county board members to consider the high number of prosecutors who have left the DA’s office — 22 in the past nine years. She says the office is so understaffed, it causes “literal mental and physical breakdown.”

On May 4, a newly hired prosecutor in the Marathon County District Attorney’s office wrote a resignation letter that casts in stark detail the situation in the DA’s office.

She thanked DA Theresa Wetzsteon for the opportunity to pursue her dream job of being a prosecutor, but wrote that she was resigning because “in the two months I have worked as an Assistant District Attorney, I have worked more hours than I thought humanly possible. And it wasn’t enough. There was always more to do. I was always behind. The office is grossly understaffed and I realize it is not your fault. I find that the caseload is untenable.”

Even with the state funding more prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office, Wetzsteon on Monday told the county Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee that the situation looks dire in the DA’s office.

The office has seen 40 prosecutors leave since 2002, and 22 since 2010. The recent prosecutor who detailed the reasons for her resignation in the letter was “bright, passionate and always dreamed of being a prosecutor,” Wetzsteon says. But the current caseload leads to the “literal mental and physical breakdown.”

The state budget adds 3.5 new positions to Marathon County’s DA office — one less than Republican lawmakers proposed for Marathon County. But two of those account for district attorney positions the county has been paying for, even though prosecutors are state employees. So in the end, the state really is supplying only one more spot in the DA’s office.

According to Gov. Evers’ office, it was based on a formula of need, but Rep. Patrick Snyder contested that assessment, saying prosecutors were added to Dane and Milwaukee counties when they were staffed at levels closer to what a state needs assessment showed than Marathon County. According to a Legislative Audit Bureau report, the county was staffed at 62% of where it should be. Milwaukee was at 115% and Dane was at 85%. “Politics unfortunately raised its ugly head,” Snyder said. “I think it’s southern Wisconsin not paying attention to northern Wisconsin.”

Wetzsteon is requesting two more positions — a paralegal and for the county to fund at least one more prosecutor. Karger did not include those positions in his budget, instead funding new dispatchers for the communications center, which the Public Safety Committee flagged as a priority, Karger says. The additional dispatchers are necessary to open a new police channel, something public safety leaders say is critical to public safety.

The DA’s office averages 1,400 felony cases per year. The office currently has 16 homicide-related cases pending and five more expected to be charged in the next few years. There are ten prosecutors, and when the state funding goes through, there will be 11.

“Do you really want someone with four months’ experience prosecuting the homicide of your loved one?” Wetzsteon says. “That’s what we’re looking at.”

Also at jeopardy, if positions aren’t funded, are many of the alternative justice programs, Wetzsteon says. At the current rate things are going, she says, the DA’s office will have to focus on its core case load, and won’t have time to devote to resource-intensive projects such as OWI and Drug Court.

The non-profit impact

These public safety issues more than ever are rolling over the non-profits that have been supported by the county. Slated to receive less money in the next budget and years to come: United Way, Crimestoppers, educational bootcamp, Boys and Girls Club, Marathon County Historical Society, MCDEVCO, North Central Community Action Program, Partners for Progressive Agriculture, The Women’s Community and the Wisconsin Valley Fair.

The challenge is that many of the non-profits funded by the county provide services that turn around and benefit it.

The starkest example might be The Women’s Community. County funding goes toward applying for grants that leverage more money for its programs, says Executive Director Jane Graham Jennings. The cuts could mean the agency would lose about $168,000 in matching grants, Jennings says.

One of the arguments for cutting the non-profits’ budgets is that they have the ability to fundraise elsewhere to make up the difference. But that’s not so easy, Jennings says. Staff are already stretched thin, and the time and effort to put on more fundraising events don’t come out of thin air.

How many homicides has The Women’s Community prevented by giving women a safe, protected environment, Jennings asked rhetorically. “It’s hard to put a price on prevention,” Jennings says. “It’s hard for us to say what would happen if The Women’s Community wasn’t here for people.”

Others wonder as well. At the Boys and Girls Club, it means fewer teens can participate in the Healthy Teens initiative, says Executive Director Matt Jameson. The program helps promote healthy lifestyles in about 1,800 young adult members, including skills to resist drugs and alcohol, something important as the county struggles with an opioid crisis.

“I think public and private partnerships when it comes to helping youth is always a good thing,” Jameson says. “It takes everyone to help make an impact on these kids.”

Russ Wilson already spoke about the impact of the cuts to the Marathon County Historical Society at a recent county meeting, and told City Pages the same. The Historical Society has become a dynamic place that caters to a diverse demographic, Wilson says. But starting with the second round of cuts in 2021, the organization is looking at “frankly, a path to disaster,” he says.

The battle is about to begin

Karger says the levy limits might have carved out the fat in the beginning, but those days are long over, and levy limits now are now pushing the county into a deficit each year as expenses outpace the amount it can tax.

“I don’t think there is anything we’re doing right now that they don’t want us to do,” Karger says. “At this point it’s about borrowing to do things.”

“The levy caps are rooted in the lack of confidence in local officials to make good decisions,” Karger says. “It’s not anything else.”

On the other side of the coin, Karger says, no one likes paying property taxes. They come due at an awkward time of the year, and in a big lump sum.

Wilson already spoke on behalf of the Historical Society, and Wetzsteon made an impassioned plea to the county’s HR, Finance and Property Committee, which accepted and forwarded the budget to the county board. Jennings plans to speak to county officials later this week and the board will hear from others before it’s through.