Eau Claire County Courthouse

The Eau Claire County Department of Human Services board discussed its 2019 budget shortfall and potential solutions going forward during a meeting Monday evening.

Overall department expenses as of July 2019 are $2.2 million above budget, meaning DHS has already used about 65% of its total budget. Notable areas are programs related to community care and treatment of children who are abused or neglected, which stand at 80% of annual expenses used thus far. DHS has also spent $2.7 million on alternate care, 166.5% of its allocated 2019 budget.

If the department continues spending at the same pace it did through the first seven months, it would result in overages of $3.7 million by the end of this year. However, DHS director Diane Cable said changes have already occurred, particularly related to alternate care, and the results should be seen in financial statements for the remainder of the year.

Other cost-saving measures include 10 full-time positions put on hold and one position being abolished. Those vacant slots will result in about $350,000 in savings for 2019. New employees will either start later this year or the positions will be reviewed in December.

Cable said those open spots are a result of natural vacancies, but she said fewer slots filled have put a strain on some current employees.

“Our staff are incredible,” Cable said. “They’re being challenged to really think about things in really great ways. They’re also really worried as to what that means from a risk perspective. We are asking them to take greater risks.”

Those risks include bringing an individual back home from an alternate care facility, for example.

Eau Claire County Finance Director Norb Kirk said cash flow issues may arise as a result of budget deficits and the lag time for reimbursing some DHS services.

“We’re going to be very conscious of the cash activity in the next couple of months,” Kirk said. “It’s probably more so in DHS just because of the amount of cash we’re talking about.”

The board also went over the challenges associated with what most of its members view as limited funding.

Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said levy limits have created a level of financial stress on the county as a whole, forcing entities to be creative with cost-saving measures.

Those steps sometimes only go so far, however. DHS board chair Colleen Bates said the department will likely have to make hard decisions about its most necessary programs.

“Obviously we’re still in trouble as far as this budget is concerned,” Bates said “As a board, do you want to make that determination if there are other things that literally have to go away and be cut back on, or do you want it to be done by somebody else? It’s a hard job, and I think really and truly this board knows about every one of those programs. My own thinking is I’d rather that decision be made by people who know the programs.”

DHS deputy director Tom Wirth agreed but said it is not realistic to have the public shoulder the burden solely through volunteerism.

“I do think some of these things come at a cost to the community,” Wirth said. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is a thing.”

Bates also mentioned looking for community partners who can help with early intervention because there likely won’t be additional tax dollars arriving soon.

“I don’t see more money coming, and it scares me to death,” Bates said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

The next DHS board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 28.