Damakant Jayshi

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors on Thursday overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to eliminate funding for five nonprofits including The Women’s Community, and drastically reduced proposed budget cuts for the public library.

At the end of a 5-hour debate that saw three breaks, the Board of Supervisors passed the 2023 budget of $221,568,593 around midnight. The approved tax levy is $54,838,660.

Marathon County has signed contracts with the five targeted nonprofits for their services, a fact that Board Chair Kurt Gibbs and Supervisor John Robinson reminded critics. The Women’s Community, which appeared to enjoy a broad support, Judicare Mediation Services; United Way 211, the Marathon County Historical Society and the North Central Community Action Program – had requested the board continue with their partnership.

All five nonprofits were facing elimination of contracts and funding. The heads and staff of these organizations, residents and a number of supervisors urged those who proposed the cuts to withdraw their effort, citing the services they were providing.

The Women’s Community provides support to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, among other emergency services, while the United Way’s 211 program offers emergency assistance for people in distress, including those with mental illness. The Judicare Mediation Program provides mediation in non-criminal cases. For The Women’s Community, the elimination of funding for its services would have created a ripple effect, as the county’s funding is used for significant matching grants to support their services.

Supervisors Matt Bootz and Robinson cautioned their colleagues before the vote, saying the nonprofits provided vital services to the community. Bootz said The Women’s Community and the Judicare Mediation Program worked with law enforcement on diversion programs for civil offenses and actually saved money for the county.

Bootz and Supervisor Jacob Langenhahn, along with a number of additional supervisors, said they are open to finding a different way to ensuring the community has access to those services – but eliminating the support without giving the organizations time would hurt them and the good work they are doing.

Supervisor Alyson Leahy criticized what she termed the “annual occurrence” of these types of proposals during budget discussions. She said the proper time and place for such discussions are in the standing committee meetings, not during the budget adoption time. Bootz agreed, saying the value of the standing committees is being eroded because of these discussions on the budget adoption day.

But Supervisor Chris Dickinson, who had proposed elimination of funding for the five nonprofits and cuts to other departments, defended the debate by saying the budget discussion is the right time to debate such issues. But he agreed that the signed contracts are an issue and said he hadn’t thought about that. He and a few others reiterated that government should not fund nonprofits.

But Dickinson’s proposal suffered a stinging rebuke, with only five supervisors in the 38-member body voting to eliminate the funding. Among those saying no to the amendment included the members who wanted various cuts in other areas. Supervisor Gary Gisselman abstained because of his association with the Historical Society and Supervisor Donna Krause was absent.

Family Keys project moves forward

Among the programs that remained intact after Thursday’s bruising debate is Family Keys, a family reunion project fully funded by the federal government through Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families. This pilot program with funding of $327,000 is an initiative to reunite court-cleared families with their children and keep them out of foster care.

Despite significant changes to program’s elements, including replacing congregate living with single-family rental units as demanded by some supervisors, some supervisors still wanted to nix the program. With the pilot program now part of the budget, the Dept. of Social Services can launch the program next year.

Proposed cuts reduced drastically

During the debate over amendments from supervisors proposing cuts to various departments, services and programs, Gibbs cautioned his colleagues a number of times about the consequences of their proposals, in their attempt to be “fiscally responsible.” He said the proposed levy cuts might take the county closer to a negative levy limit. “If we continue in this direction, we will reduce the operating levy,” Gibbs said, adding that doing so would hamstring the 2024 budget.

As a result, a proposed cut to the Nurse Family Partnership program of the county’s Health Dept. was reduced from $621,507 to $140,000. Supervisor Gayle Marshall, who had proposed the cut, appeared unprepared after being asked to spell out which line items she wanted eliminated or reduced after she proposed lowering the cut. The originally allocated budget for NFP was $841,507.

But that was done only after the original amendment, with $621,507 as a proposed cut, was passed, giving her time to come up with the specific item and figures. Later, she suggested the contractual services and the tax levy for the decrease. She and some other supervisors said the amount allocated to the program was too high.

County staff and a number of residents and supervisors have said the Nurse Family Partnership – a nurse visitation program – is an evidence-based initiative that helps first-time mothers and babies. The NFP is a new version of the county’s Start Right program.

Marshall said the program was discretionary and only eight of the 72 Wisconsin counties have it, questioning its efficacy.

Other supervisors disagreed, saying it was a successful and evidence-based program. In his 2023 budget message, County Administrator Lance Leonhard said that keeping the Nurse Family Partnership, which replaced the Start Right, will save money in the long run.

“Despite first year startup costs, the savings are still significant in 2023, with an estimated savings of $372,972,” he wrote. “In subsequent years, savings will amount to approximately $646,476 per year over prior budgets.”

Supervisor Michelle Van Krey said the NFP program cannot run as designed if it faces any cut as this is its first year, which requires more financial support. She asked Marshall if she had consulted county staff what she intended to do after her cut reduced the originally allocated money to about $220,000. She also said this was an attempt to bring in another nonprofit by replacing NFP. Marshall denied that charge, adding as a board they decide the policy and the staff chose the organization and by how much to support them.

However, Supervisor Tim Sondelski, who had proposed a bigger cut, $770,507, for the NFP program, said another nonprofit was offering the same services at zero cost. He was apparently referring to faith-based Hope Life Center headed by Republican Party of Marathon County chair Jack Hoogendyk. Sondelski was endorsed by the GOP in the April election this year.

Residents and supervisors have opposed doing so, calling the organization a “religious nonprofit” and not qualified to offer healthcare services. But Hoogendyk has rejected that characterization and emphasized Hope Life Center is trained and qualified to offer the services. Hope Life Center is not an accredited* agency.

Sondelski also tried to combine the two amendments but couldn’t offer the specifics and the matter did not proceed any further.

Supervisors Van Krey and Leahy said the board cannot consider another nonprofit unless it is specifically mentioned in the proposal.

Marathon County Public Library avoids drastic reduction amid risk of litigation over ‘punitive’ cut

Amidst talk of the risk of legal jeopardy to Marathon County for “punitive cuts” to the budget of public library, the Board of Supervisors passed a cut of $69,000. The figure is way below the originally proposed cut of $365,000. It was proposed by Supervisor Dickinson.

The Marathon County Public Library’s personnel budget proposal was already reduced by $350,000. The revised budget figures for MCPL under the Special Purpose Levy is $3,217,685, down from the original $3,286,685. The budget for the library was the dominant topic at the educational and budget discussion meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 3.

The amendment proposing the cut was amended after Vice-Chair Craig McEwen proposed reducing only $69,000 from the library budget, saying he agrees with Supervisor Dickinson’s remarks on the books review process but said he didn’t want the library to close or staff to get laid off. While saying he was not advocating removal of books, he suggested that the Library Board and the Board of Supervisors should work closely on the matter of the books in question. Some supervisors pointed out that the library already had enough funds in its reserve.

Before the cut was passed, Supervisor Van Krey, who sits on the Library Board, made another appeal to her colleagues not to cut any further amount, asking them to give the new library leadership time to put things in order. She also said the reserve fund is due to months long vacancy and now those are being filled. She added the reduction in the budget was a relation against the library over books that has upset some supervisors. Supervisors Yee Leng Xiong and Robinson also said that it was a retaliation against the library. She also said it was unethical to do so.

Supervisor Langenhahn suggested waiting for the outcome of books review process before approving any cut. Not doing so indeed seemed like a punishment, he added.

Dickinson defended the cut, saying again that he was disappointed the process of the review of books was slow. He admitted that the Library Board president, another Board member and Van Krey had reached out to him asking him to reconsider. He also said that not respecting the wishes of the community that is upset over books is penalizing them. This is a misleading assertion, since many residents have said they do not want the books removed and they should be available to those who want them.

Dickinson added perception exists about the books deemed pornographic. Van Krey responded by saying there’s a perception that the library is being punished over the books.

Chair Gibbs asked Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner again about legal risks to the county over cuts that could be seen as punitive over books removal.

Puerner said if the Library Board removes books over content, it could make them and the County Board liable. Last week, Puerner said library boards across the country lost cases after they attempted to ban books.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story noted that Hope Life is “not an unaccredited agency.”