Several decades ago, as I was making my transition from covering sports to city government at The Janesville Gazette, I got some sage advice about covering public budgets from the fellow I was replacing.
My co-worker reminded me of the obvious items to focus on, such as the change in the tax levy and overall spending from year to year, but he also told me to pay special attention to the change in full-time equivalent employees.
Not all budget stories even mention that, but it’s important. Why? Because payroll is the largest expense in government budgets; more employees means more spending. It’s also important because unlike some other spending, increased payroll will be built into future budgets.
I got to thinking about this when I read the Page 1 story in the May 15 Leader-Telegram about Libby Richter, the city’s new community resource specialist working out of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. The City Council last fall allocated $178,000 to fund Richter’s position and an early literacy and outreach librarian who joins the library staff this week.
According to the May 15 article, Richter appears highly qualified and energetic about her new job. She graduated from UW-Eau Claire’s social work program in 2014 and has spent the past 2½ years helping those at the Bolton Refuge House, which provides support for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She also worked at both the Menomonie Public Library while in high school and at the McIntyre Library while attending UW-EC.
Word likely is still getting out about Richter’s availability. The May 15 article said a typical day for Richter includes seeing one or two people and then researching how other libraries use social workers to provide services.
The article also noted that Richter helps folks get information on, among other things, mental health or addiction services. Referrals have come from the Sojourner House homeless shelter, Positive Avenues day center, the Police Department or other social services.
When I read that, my concern as a taxpayer kicked in. This year, Eau Claire County (taxpayers) will spend more than $37 million on health and social services programs. According to the county website, within that department are folks who help citizens in the following categories: children, youth and family; adults; behavioral health services; economic assistance; child abuse and neglect; and crisis services.
The May 15 story notes that the City Council members who supported creating Richter’s position believe that needy people sometimes are intimidated, overwhelmed or feel stigmatized by going to the courthouse or other facilities in search of assistance. In contrast, the library is a place where all are welcome and no one is judged or looked down upon.
That sounds like a reasonable point. But I wonder whether anyone at City Hall contacted anyone at the County Courthouse to see if the two entities could work together to have resource people at the courthouse visit the library on occasion to meet with those who would rather go there than the courthouse for assistance. If that interaction occurred, I didn’t hear about it last fall when funding for the two new library positions was added in the 11th hour before the City Council approved the 2019 budget.
And while the council moved some money around to fund the two new library positions, that $178,000 is now part of all future city budgets. And that amount will grow annually as salaries, health insurance and other personnel costs increase.
The city and county of Eau Claire have worked well together on other cost-sharing initiatives, including the emergency dispatch center, health department and purchasing. It seems that if the council members had studied this issue more thoroughly, it might have achieved its goal at a lower cost. The fact that the new positions were added by a slim 6-4 margin tells me that some council members had similar concerns.
I’ve attended enough budget public hearings to know that a common refrain is that government officials don’t spend money “like it’s their own,” but rather grow budgets because “it’s easy money.”
I also know that when most people need to fix something in their house, they first look around to see if they have the part they need on a shelf or in a drawer before going out and buying a new one.
I can’t help but think that with a $37 million county budget for health and social services, local government officials could have employed the same kind of thinking before adding additional staff.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.