On Sept. 3, I released my proposed 2020 budget to the county board, marking the start of a nine-week process during which the county board will modify the plan before adopting a final budget in November.
Since 2006, I have included a series of short stories in my letter that accompanies and explains the budget documents. These short stories, which are called “sidebars” in my office, are, at least, about one-quarter of the length of this column. I usually try to include a photo as well. Depending on the year and my mood at the time, the sidebars may reinforce a theme in the proposed budget or may just cover a topic that I think is interesting.
In addition to educating readers of our budget and giving them a break from all of the numbers, I look forward to writing the sidebars for the same reasons.
This year’s sidebars are apt to be more controversial. The inspiration came from a conversation that I recently had with Judge David Reddy when we were both attending a training session for our Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC). I mentioned to the judge, who has been a champion of the CJCC for many years, that I thought the committee was one of the top five most influential programs that I have seen develop during my 19 years with the county. I did not expect him to ask me to name the other four, but I’m glad he did. After several weeks of reflection, my list became clear. In no particular order, with no specific judging criteria and with no apologies, here is my list.
Volunteer Coordinator. In 2009, we upgraded a half-time volunteer coordinator position at our nursing home to full-time status, and provided it with a countywide mission. With no more direction than the new job description, Colleen Lesniak worked tirelessly to grow the program into a significant part of our operation. In 2018, Colleen recruited and coordinated the efforts of 1,108 volunteers and 45 interns who provided nearly 35,000 hours of service.
Health & Human Services Department (HHS) Redesign. Beginning in 2005, our HHS Department underwent major changes that reached to the core of how the department was organized and how services would be provided. The idea was to deliver clinical services ourselves rather than referring clients to outside providers. Change is often unsettling, and it was in this case. Critics were vocal in their dissent and warned of dire consequences of changing the status quo. Time proved those detractors wrong.
The model moved forward eventually under the leadership of Dr. David Thompson, Linda Seemeyer and our current director, Elizabeth Aldred. Numerous innovative evidence-based programs were launched in the ensuing years. With the ability to draw down more state and federal revenue, 22 new staff members were hired between 2005 and 2018. Despite these new programs and employees, the department’s tax levy grew by less than one percent per year during this time.
Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC). Of all of the services provided by county government, there is perhaps no other area that is more dependent upon the cooperation of elected and appointed officials than the administration of criminal justice. Comprised of stakeholders including our judges, sheriff, county board chair, district attorney, HHS director, clerk of circuit court, as well as representatives from local law enforcement, higher education and state offices of corrections and the public defender, the CJCC has implemented numerous programs, including treatment courts, aimed at breaking the cycle of recidivism which causes individuals with chemical dependencies to re-offend. The programs and others championed by the CJCC have maintained public safety and saved millions in corrections costs.
Transportation. The lack of options for folks to travel around our large county had been an issue ever since I started my job in Walworth County. In 2017, we hired Al Stanek away from his position leading the Peoria bus system to start a mass transit program here. After a couple of weeks on the job, and in spite of our warnings about the name he chose (too many hyphens and no one technically dials phones today), Al launched Wal-to-Wal DIAL-a-RIDE, and it became an instant success. Last year, our transportation program provided 34,267 rides — an increase of 38 percent from the previous year. Nicole Hill, who took over the program after Al’s retirement, continues to grow the program.
Lakeland School. Walworth County has been an innovator in providing services to children with special education needs ever since our first program began in 1950. The first class, comprised of just 14 students, met in space rented from the VFW in Elkhorn. Over time, the program grew, and by the early 2000s, Walworth County teachers were educating over 2,000 students in 35 different schools throughout the county. In desperate need of replacing our aging 1960s-era Lakeland School and facing a significant expansion of administrative staff to oversee the rapidly growing student body, our Children with Disabilities Education Board (CDEB) program faced an uncertain future.
Rather than approaching the issue as an “all or nothing” proposition, a third option was pursued. Bonds were issued for the construction of a replacement school on the condition that the county would transition out of providing district-based services over a 10-year period. The new school opened for classes in 2008. With the ability to focus on a more manageable program, our own Lakeland School has flourished, providing an important option for students in our county.
Budget season is officially underway. You can follow the process by visiting the county’s website at www.co.walworth.wi.us. Key budget documents will be posted there from now until November, and if you get tired of looking at them, take some time to read the complete narratives of my top five list.