July 22, 2009
McReynolds defends Human Services, laments budget at Town Hall meeting
Racine County Executive Bill McReynolds doesn't know how the county will make up the $2 million hole in its 2010 budget.
"I can't answer that question right now," McReynolds said in response to a question at a town hall meeting Tuesday at the Cesar Chavez Community Center in Racine. "I have not had the budget on my desk."
But the county executive also assured the audience of seven, including one child, that county government will be OK.
"We will get through this," he said.
It's gonna be tough. The county is losing income from its investments, drops in construction and property transfers and $2 million in delinquent property taxes this year alone. The county's total unpaid tax bill is $8.5 million.
The state didn't help with its budget, McReynolds added. The recently passed budget continues a seven-year trend of shifting state spending to local governments. Next year, Racine County will have to offset at least $1.6 million in lost aid or additional costs from the state. (Read the JT story on this here.)
McReynolds said the cuts will affect county residents with mental illness.
"I don't understand why they would go after not funding people with mental illness issues," he said.
The state did raise the cap on the county's property tax levy from a 2 percent to a 3 percent increase. But in reality the increase is barely enough to cover salaries, McReynolds said.
Less state money for the county's Human Services Department comes less than a year after the department was hit with two controversies.
In one, Racine residents were found abusing the Wisconsin Shares child care program to collect tens of thousands of dollars in state aid for services they didn't deliver. In the other, 2-year-old Brian Hawes died after four reports of abuse in the home were called into the department. The state found the department's response inadequate.
Jayne Siler, of the Racine Taxpayers Association, asked McReynolds if he considered a management change (Debbie Jossart heads the department) after the incidents. McReynolds said he hadn't.
He said the Human Services Department deals with the most at-risk people in the county, and at times tragic things will happen.
"I'm sorry we can't prevent every bad thing that happens in the county," McReynolds said.
He said the county "maybe could have done a better job" at responding to the Hawes' complaints, but also said the county can't monitor every families' actions.
"You can't be with people 24 hours a day, seven days a week," McReynolds said.
On the Wisconsin Shares program, McReynolds wondered aloud why the District Attorney's office has yet to file charges despite fraud coming to light in January. He also criticized local legislators for not introducing bills to prevent future fraud.
He also pointed out the state budget stopped money to investigate child care and welfare fraud. Racine County lost its entire budget - $58,000 - to track down people abusing state systems.
Turnout was light at the Town Hall meeting, which McReynolds said was county's 15th since 2003. County staff and County Board supervisors easily outnumbered the audience of seven (including RacinePost). Audience members were invited to ask county officials questions about anything on their mind.
One gentleman in the crowd asked about plans to extend Highway 794 south into Racine County. McReynolds said the extension, at one time called the lake arterial, probably won't happen.
"All of the right-of-ways for the arterial were given up," he said. "I don't see it as an alternative at this point."
McReynolds added that he learned about the issue Tuesday from reading RacinePost.
However, significant road construction is planned for Highway 32 (Douglas Ave.) through Racine and Caledonia, officials said. The state highway may be rebuilt in the next two years and there's talk of two new roundabouts near the intersection of Highway 31 and Highway 32.
Further north, the timetable is longer. Register of Deeds Jim Ladwig, who owns Mulligan's mini-golf on Highway 32, said the highway between 5 Mile and 6 Mile roads is scheduled to be rebuilt in 2015.
County Board Supervisor and city Alderman Jim Kaplan, whose county district includes Douglas Avenue, threw in that there's talk of rerouting Highway 32 south to Hamilton Street and using business improvement district money to upgrade the look of the highway. "It would be beneficial to this area," Kaplan said. "We could use some assistance."