On Friday, January 17, 2020, the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual State of the County address, presented by Eau Claire County Board Chair Nick Smiar and County Board administrator Kathryn Schauf. Addressing its many constituents gathered, The county took the opportunity to explain the ups and downs of 2019 and the trajectory of the county moving forward into 2020. When the new Board is seated in April, it will begin work on the Strategic Plan alongside the normal services it provides. Throughout the address, efforts to increase transparency in decision making and magnify the voices of constituents through greater civic engagement were emphasized heavily.
Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project
Rob Karwath of Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project was brought in by the County to discuss the importance of civic engagement and how it will factor in heavily to the upcoming Strategic Plan. Karwath observed that change is happening, increasing in speed and intensity, and its influence is destabilizing communities who fail to adapt. Change has led to feelings of instability in the economy, jobs, and culture, which can feed into a “scarcity mentality” which causes conflict and infighting. He invites the Board to ask how relationships with constituents and business partners are changing, as well as how community needs and expectations are changing, when creating the new Plan.
The Civility Project works to increase civic engagement to help constituents believe that their ideas, if voiced, will be heard and considered fairly.This environment fosters civil engagement by letting people know they are welcome at the table and be part of the solution to problems. The Speak Your Peace approach to increasing civic engagement has been utilized in Duluth, resulting in greater attraction of citizens, and business investment due to less infighting and greater community solidarity. This approach has been further utilized in Sisters, Oregon, and locally in Eau Claire after the referendum vote on the Confluence Center. The next step with Eau Claire County is to integrate Speak Your Peace into the Strategic Planning process.
The three biggest components in 2019 expenditures were Health and Social Services, Transportation and Public Works, and Public Safety. These areas are made up of different types of funding-- yes they have property tax funding, but they also use grant funding, medicaid, and other types of dollars. County government is unique from other local governments because the city government has home rule authority, meaning they have more discretion in providing services. Counties are state and locally constituted government, so many of the services are those provided on behalf of the state of Wisconsin.
Transportation and Public Works
The county maintains roads on major arterial routes like interstates and highways on behalf of the state, as well as its own county roads, and shares responsibility with other roads with the cities of Eau Claire and Altoona. The county announced that the transportation PASER rating, measuring road conditions, rose from 5.4 in 2017 to 5.9 in 2019. That half point difference makes a big impact, says Schauf. She continued to explain that when the PASER ratings begin to reach approximately 6, that the year over year investment the county needs to make in maintaining that infrastructure actually becomes lower than the cost of simply letting roads degrade and then rebuilding them. The rising PASER rating is a direct result of rising registration fees and the investment the county has made in infrastructure.
Though tax levy and vehicle registration help fund roads, the majority of county highway funding comes from borrowing.To continue this level of service, the County will have to continue to borrow, and invites the the community to ask if continuing to borrow at these rates in order to maintain the roadways is something worth doing.
The Sheriff’s Department patrol covers 655 square miles, serving mostly the low-population rural areas and regional areas outside of Eau Claire and Altoona, leading to lower caseloads than these cities themselves have. Most cases tackled by the County in 2019 dealt with drugs, and the incidence of meth related cases has increased by nearly 5% from 2018-2019. Overall, there has been a 4.4% decrease in the number of criminal cases opened by the Sheriff's Department and an increase of 1.5% in the number of criminal cases closed. Schauf said the improving case turnover means the Department is being efficient and serving the community well.
There has been a year-to-year decline from 2018-2019 in the jail population, which Schuaf said is good, but there remains pressure on the county jail system as the current secure population of 281 exceeds the recommended capacity of 206 inmates, requiring some inmates be shipped to other jurisdictions for housing. The county is working on the criminal justice system to reduce pressure by lowering the recidivism rate through treatment courts and social worker placements within the jail.
Health and Social Services
The two highest cost areas of health and social services in county government are abused and neglected children and behavioral health/crisis services/treatment court. Placement of troubled children costs hundreds of dollars a day and the country has a shortage of adequate mental health services for them. There were 1,342 reports and referrals in 2019, but through rigorous alternate care programs working with households to try to reduce the rate of child removal, only 419 of these moved on to the assessment stage. From 2018-2019 there has been a 53% decrease, because of alternate care, in out-of-home residential placements of children. The county hopes to continue its programs helping children stay in homes as much as they can and provide services to increase their quality of life.
The Chamber’s next Eggs & Issues will be on Friday, February 21, 2020 at The Lismore. The discussion will be centered around the State of the City of Eau Claire. For more information and to register, click here.
Link to download State of the County Presentation (Eau Claire County)
County leaders discuss 2020 priorities, civility (Leader-Telegram)
Eau Claire leaders look to expand broadband, discuss mental health in 2019 (WQOW News 18)
Posted by Clayton Cavanaugh, Chamber intern