Area leaders laid out 2020 priorities for Eau Claire County and the importance of civility when working on potential solutions Friday morning.
During the annual State of the County breakfast hosted by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, County Administrator Kathryn Schauf and County Board Chair Nick Smiar discussed how to improve three main areas this year: health and social services, transportation and public safety.
Through all the challenges and opportunities at the county level, Smiar mentioned the importance of transparency so residents know what is going on and what their roles are in providing those services.
Schauf said the county is hoping to further engage community members in discussions during a year full of opportunities and challenges.
“It is defining the way we want our community to look,” Schauf said. “We need the insights of all of our community partners.”
Schauf and Smiar presented a slideshow that focused on the three areas that make up most of the county’s budget: health and social services, transportation and public works, and public safety.
Health and social services
This area makes up about 37% of the county’s budget, the largest such percentage.
Schauf and Smiar presented information regarding abused and neglected children/vulnerable adults and behavioral health/crisis services/treatment court, the two areas that present the greatest financial pressure for the county Department of Human Services.
Schauf said it is important to work with families in their homes to obtain better outcomes at a lower cost.
Reports and referrals of children needing services has stayed fairly consistent in the last four years, as 2019 saw 1,342 total reports, 419 of which needed assessment. Those numbers in 2015 were 1,408 and 438, respectively.
Alternate care, which means placing children somewhere other than their home, has increased in recent years from 108 people and 2,894 days spent outside homes in 2015 to 149 people and 4,292 days in 2019.
Behavioral health means disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar and depression, which can be costly for individuals and area taxpayers.
“We have a lack of mental health services in this area,” Smiar said, noting the county is working to resolve that issue by working with several community partners.
According to the presentation, children in need of protective services and juveniles in need of protective services both decreased by more than 25% from 2018 to ‘19.
This area constituted around 26% of county expenses, mainly from road maintenance and snow removal.
Schauf mentioned the ongoing investment in improving county roads as evidenced by an increase in PASER rating. PASER has a system that rates pavement from 1 through 10, with roads between 5 and 6 being in fair condition. The county had a rating of 4.3 in 2007, 5.4 in 2015 and 5.9 in 2019. A rating at or above 6 means annual maintenance costs are lower than letting the roads degrade and making large changes.
The county must borrow money to maintain roadways, so Schauf said people must think about if they want to continue doing that going forward. She also mentioned the vehicle registration fee, commonly known as a wheel tax, is projected to provide about $2.4 million in annual funding toward road maintenance.
Smiar cited the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport as an example of cooperation between entities, since Eau Claire and Chippewa counties jointly operate the airport.
This area composed about 17% of county expenses. The Eau Claire County Jail housed an average of 281 people total in 2019, a 6.24% decrease from 2018.
Most types of crimes were down, but the number of people with meth-related cases at the jail increased by 4.82% from 2018 to ‘19. As a result of meth challenges, Schauf said the jail could face increased capacity pressure.
Similarly, Smiar said law enforcement challenges today stem from people using meth and other serious drugs, which are more costly and time-consuming to deal with than alcohol, which was more common 10 to 15 years ago.
Like with social services, the presentation noted that 43% of the people county jail have mental health needs, an area Schauf said the county will work on in 2020.
Attendees also heard a presentation from Rob Karwath, national spokesperson for the Speak Your Peace Civility Project.
Speak Your Peace has nine tenets to help build a sense of community. They stem from “Today I will” statements. The nine areas are: pay attention; listen; be inclusive; do not gossip; show respect; be agreeable (open to compromise); apologize; give constructive criticism; and take responsibility.
Karwath said many communities are struggling with civility issues, which are largely a result of rapid, fundamental changes around areas like wages, immigration, racial and ethnic issues and family and workplace roles. Those changes can be frightening and difficult to adjust to.
“There’s no holding back change, no going back to the good old days, which maybe weren’t as good as we remember,” Karwath said.
Success comes from welcoming change and new ideas and coming up with new ideas to adapt, Karwath said. Community members should embrace change and see the benefits of working together, rather than being fearful or hesitant.
“Civility is the oil that keeps the machine of your county government running smoothly,” Karwath said.