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May 16, 2012 | 07:35 AM
News coverage from Madison during the past year has been dominated by changes in public sector labor law and debate over how to create more jobs. As a result, other changes that have been taking place in state government have tended to be under-reported.

One such change is an increased use of consortia to manage state programs. I will admit that prior to 2011, I would have been hard pressed to come up with the plural form of the word consortium. A consortium, in the context of state programs, means a combining of several counties to run a program that had previously been administered by individual counties or municipalities. Consortia, I have since learned, through constant repetition, is the plural form of the word, and Walworth County is becoming involved in an increasing number of these arrangements.

Providing services at a regional level is not a new concept. Technical college districts, for example, currently serve multiple counties. Our own Gateway Technical College district offers classes to residents of Walworth as well as Racine and Kenosha counties.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) has provided planning services for seven counties, including Walworth, for many years. What makes the newest round of consortia a little different, at least in my mind, is that the state is leaving it up to individual counties to determine how to govern operations of the consortia, a feature which has both advantages and disadvantages. Statutes, in contrast, provide for the membership and operations of the more traditional multi-county programs, such as Gateway and SEWRPC. In the case of the Gateway board, that includes the power to levy taxes to support its operations.

Our introduction to the state's new vision of consortia began last year with changes to the administration of income maintenance programs.

Income maintenance refers to the variety of state and federal programs designed to assist low income individuals, and includes programs such as Badger Care Plus and Medicaid. Prior to 2011, most Wisconsin counties contracted directly with the state to administer these services, using a combination of federal, state and local dollars. Walworth County's program was run by our Health and Human Services Department.

The 2011-2013 state budget originally called for a complete state takeover of the program. County human services directors throughout the state objected, raising concerns about the quality of the program that would result. A compromise, of sorts, emerged, with the state budget directing its Department of Health Services to contract with no more than ten consortia.

Under the plan, groups of counties came together and determined how to provide services to an entire region. Member counties, in turn, appointed a "lead" agency that is responsible for entering into a contract with the state and keeping track of all the funds. Walworth County is part of the Moraine Lakes Consortium, along with Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties, as well as Fond du Lac County, which serves as lead agency.

The state recently announced a second consortia plan, dealing with the distribution of certain Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds currently managed by individual towns, municipalities and some counties.

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Our county government has not participated in the program, but a number of local governments in Walworth County have. Funding for the program is provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to qualifying property owners to rehabilitate housing units. These funds often take the form of a low or no interest loan.

The loans, in turn, are originated and serviced by the local unit of government in which the property is located. The money is repaid by the property owner to a "revolving loan fund," administered by local government and made available for other qualifying projects in that jurisdiction. By the end of June, the state hopes to consolidate this program in a number of county consortia.

We would be included in a region extending as far west as Sauk County, with Columbia County slated to be the lead agency. If Walworth County doesn't join that consortium, the program might be unavailable to residents unless local units of government choose to join the consortium, themselves.

Consortia have advantages to the state, and I don't blame state officials for exploring the concept. They can provide an economy of scale. With digital technology, files can be shared and, as long as programs are run competently, it shouldn't matter if you are being helped by a worker in Elkhorn or Fond du Lac.

The most serious downside, from my perspective, centers on accountability. Consortia, in effect, create another level of government. Each one will have a governing council, likely consisting of appointed officials.

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Prior to 2012, if income maintenance services were not being provided adequately, an aggrieved resident could complain to their county board. If the state would have run the program, as it was originally contemplated in the budget, the governor would be accountable. With consortia taking over major programs, I have my doubts as to whether the "buck" will really stop at this new level of government.

A far bolder move, which would fix accountability and promote economies of scale, would be to redraw county lines, creating fewer and larger counties that resemble some of these newer consortia. A move like that would likely be unpopular among county officials, throughout the state. Given that most county lines in Wisconsin were drawn before computers, automobiles or even trains operated in this state, it might be time to look at the basic structure under which counties operate.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors


Tags: Neal Kedzie

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