Eau Claire County Courthouse

Eau Claire County Courthouse

The Eau Claire County Department of Human Services anticipates seven-figure overages in 2019, continuing a trend in recent years.

Rather than merely illustrating an inefficient department, though, DHS director Diane Cable said the financial strain reflects the ills facing Eau Claire County as a whole, including opioid and methamphetamine abuse, mental health treatment and relocating children from troubled homes. All of those factors contribute to citizens needing services that DHS must provide, regardless of cost.

Another issue contributing to the seven-figure operational losses involves the shortage of inpatient hospital beds in western Wisconsin for adults and adolescents in need of psychiatric treatment. If beds are not available, Eau Claire County residents are transported by law enforcement to other parts of the state or to Minnesota for psychiatric treatment, a time-consuming and expensive action.

“It’s not OK, that system,” Cable said. “We have to manage what we have right now — and that managing of what we have is incredibly costly — and find a new way of doing business at the same time.”

DHS has been in the red for the past several years, something not unique to Eau Claire.

“I think everybody from across the state has agreed that we do not have enough money to throw at what is currently happening,” Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said.

Through April of this year, DHS had overages of about $1.45 million. Despite the significant losses in the first four months, Cable anticipates total overages of around $2.2 million for 2019 due to plans outlined in a presentation to the DHS board last Monday.

That meeting occurred at the same time as the Eau Claire County Finance and Budget Committee meeting last Monday, which turned out to be a timing issue. While county board supervisors expressed irritation about the significant losses and lack of DHS officials to discuss the department’s finances, Cable and board members were going over the DHS budget.

During the DHS meeting, Cable discussed mitigation plans and long-term goals. A slideshow outlined several different areas that DHS projects will reduce overages by a total of $1.76 million this year. Most of that money, around $1.02 million, will come from reductions related to alternate care — moving a child or adult out of their residence and into a group home, foster home or residential care facility — while other projections include reductions of about $315,000 in personnel, decreases of around $110,000 for purchased services and revenue increases of just under $310,000.

Cable said DHS began intensive work regarding alternate care intervention about a year ago. That work includes earlier mental health treatment for adults and better engagement with potential caretakers — extended family, friends, neighbors — to help raise children.

That is an example of a proactive approach to human services, which Cable said is the main way to reduce costs for the rest of 2019 and going forward. Other ways to mitigate overages include collaborating with local entities like the Eau Claire County Jail and the Eau Claire City-County Public Health Department.

Cable said much of the DHS resources have been directed toward crisis level management in recent years, which are more expensive than stopping crises from occurring in the first place.

Colleen Bates, DHS Board chair and an Eau Claire County supervisor, concurred.

“It’s so much easier to actually prevent a fire than to put it out,” Bates said.

Bates said the situation can only improve if people care enough to address the challenges, which largely comes down to a matter of perspective.

“Do you think of services of this type as being a drain on taxpayers, or do you think of services of this type as mitigating crisis issues in our community?” Bates said.

Long-term goals for DHS include annual budget overages equaling $950,000 or less within two years and the department breaking even or seeing revenues within three years. Cable expressed confidence in the ability of the 223 DHS employees and many other collaborating entities to reach those marks this year and going forward.

However, Stella Pagonis, Eau Claire County Board supervisor and chair of the finance and budget committee, is skeptical about DHS decreasing its overages to such a large degree.

“Even though Human Services states they are implementing mitigation plans, the first six months of 2019 haven’t shown any evidence of it, and it makes one wonder what’s taking them so long,” Pagonis said. “...I’m hopeful they are correct.”

Cable and Bates know the challenges facing DHS, but they stressed the time it takes to deal with obstacles.

“We have to hang in there, and if we just all of a sudden end that, and we don’t continue to invest — (which) is what I would see this as, is investing for the care of our community — it is going to harm more folks and it is going to cost us more money, both financially and from a human perspective,” Cable said.

Bates emphasized that the community must focus on solutions to root causes instead of pointing fingers.

“It’s so easy to try to find a simple solution for complex problems, and it’s easy to try to place blame,” Bates said. “The object is to really look and say, ‘What needs to be done, and how can we best support it? How can we best make sure that what we’re doing is gradual and giving us results that make our community better?’”

Work is underway to better manage DHS overages, but the next few years will involve a long, challenging road.