News Article Details

Mental health needs major focus of proposed county budget

Wisconsin State Journal - 10/3/2017

Oct. 03--A proposed 2018 operating budget for Dane County that includes funding for an expensive new jail and a renewed focus on mental illness showcases how the county meets the needs of its diverse population and makes it a special place to live, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said.

A new jail with a $76 million price tag -- the most expensive project in county history -- is the biggest-ticket item of the $538 million budget that would increase taxes of the average Madison home (valued at $269,377) by $54.74 or 6.9 percent, according to Parisi. He said he gave his OK to the project after he was promised the project would address several issues, including improving conditions for the mentally ill.

Parisi, who introduced the budget Monday afternoon from the new day resource center for the homeless, known as The Beacon, on the Near East Side, expressed pride in the budget, saying it accelerated efforts to clean up lakes, improved roads and continued to invest in quality-of-life projects like bike trails.

"People from outside Dane County often like to criticize us and talk down about us. But we lead the state in every quality-of-life indicator like job creators or recreational opportunities," Parisi said. "I try to do what the people I represent would do in my position, and I believe helping people with mental illness and the other initiatives in the budget are a reflection of what the county wants me to be doing."

The next step for the proposed budget is a review by the County Board, which will vote whether to approve it. Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan offered her support of it at Monday's press conference. "I really like the way he approached the jail funding," Corrigan said.

The plan for the new jail would combine the county's three aging jails at the City-County Building, the Ferris Huber Center and the Public Safety Building into one facility that Parisi said would be more efficient and safer for staff and inmates.

Parisi said he OK'd the jail plan, which reduces the number of jail beds by nearly 100, on the condition that the county "do everything possible on the front end -- and also on re-entry -- to provide for rehabilitation and reintegration into society" for inmates, including those who are mentally ill.

That's part of the county's effort to examine its entire mental health system and make sure all services available in the county are accessible to those who need them, according to Parisi. Some counties address mental health issues with their residents by sending them to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute near Oshkosh, which Parisi called a "warehousing" system because of the lack of facilities in the state to help the mentally ill.

"It's not a good environment for people experiencing a mental health crisis," he said. "We are investing locally to make sure fewer people in Dane County find themselves in that situation."

The proposed budget would allocate just over $1 million to help fund two mental health providers at schools so children as young as the middle-school level who are in crisis -- or on the edge of a crisis -- can get help connecting with the services they need, Parisi said. The program, which receives additional funding from the participating schools and Catholic Charities, has grown to include 20 mental health professionals who worked with at least 260 students last year in nine different school districts.

The budget also allocates money to explore the costs and potential of a new crisis restoration center and keep alive a Porchlight program called Safe Haven that provides transitional housing and other resources to stabilize living situations for people with mental illness, Parisi said.

Other highlights of the proposed budget include:

--Contributing $4 million to the expansion of Highway M linking the Far West Side of Madison to Verona, and $2 million to improve Fish Hatchery Road south of the Beltline to Highway PD.

--Spending $2.5 million for sediment removal from creeks, rivers and streams that feed into the county's lakes and $45,000 for a new grant program looking at strategies to reduce carbon emissions.

--Spending $1.9 million for off-road bike and pedestrian trails.

--Adding four Medical Lead Investigator positions at the Medical Examiner's Office. There have been four on staff for 13 years and the average number of daily calls for Dane County deaths has nearly doubled during that period, according to Parisi. The office also coordinates death investigations for several other counties.

--Implementing a new 10-week paid parental leave benefit for birth or adoptive mothers and fathers who work for the county.

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(c)2017 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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