Regarding the current controversy about the Department of Human Services, I offer the facts in the case as a corrective to false narratives, rumor and gossip.
The controversy began when the audit report for fiscal year 2019 indicated that DHS had a total budget overage of approximately $3.3 million. A budget overage is not an indication of criminal activity; service demand overwhelmed available funds, especially in mental health services and foster care services. A public social service agency must operate on a “no decline” basis. It is mandated to take the clients who come to it or are ordered to it, no matter whether there are sufficient funds or not.
For example, if DHS must refer a person for in-patient mental health services at the local hospital, where Medicaid would pay the costs, and the hospital does not accept the referral, the person must be sent to the state hospital. The county pays the full costs, about $750,000 to $1 million for the year for that one person.
There was great concern because of the dollar amount and the impact on the county’s general fund and on its borrowing capacity. A mitigation plan was developed and implemented, to ensure that DHS would remain on budget for 2020. That plan, developed with the assistance of Alia, a nonprofit management consulting organization, has had its desired effect. DHS is now on budget.
The case of stolen gift cards is also not a sign of criminal activity by anyone other than the person identified. The theft was picked up by the system in DHS, investigated by the department, and referred on to the Eau Claire City Police Department and the district attorney for possible prosecution. This is also not the basis for a forensic audit. Such illegal activity can and does occur in all departments, and they handle it the same way. They do not call for a forensic audit.
There is no “missing money.” Some would have us believe that there is massive fraud and embezzlement going on. Not the case.
However, in June, two County Board supervisors went directly to the sheriff and, asserting support from a “double-digit number of supervisors,” requested that the sheriff investigate the financial practices of DHS. The County Board has not seen the complaint, despite requests. We have no indication of any evidentiary basis for the request. The request was made to the sheriff, and a criminal investigation began.
This means that no discussion can occur at the County Board because the investigation is under way. In the meanwhile, a County Board supervisor was submitting a constant stream of requests for program and financial information from DHS, which has the appearance of a fishing expedition, micromanaging, harassment and bullying.
In September, the same two supervisors drafted a resolution seeking funding for a forensic audit. However, prior to submitting the resolution to a County Board committee, which is in regular order, the supervisors took the issue to the public via the media, which is not in regular order. So, unfounded allegations based on no evidence were put out to the public.
When the resolution came before the board, a motion was made to postpone the discussion to a time definite (Oct. 6) to determine the source of funding. Before On Oct. 6, the supervisor who had been seeking all of the DHS information met with the sheriff. The result of that meeting was that the sheriff agreed to fund the forensic audit from his budget. In effect, any discussion of DHS financial practices or any discussion of forensic audit was removed from public view and discussion. The small group of supervisors had done an “end run” around the County Board and the public and continued to feed rumors, gossip and false narratives to the public, with no evidence, a form of conspiracy theory.
Because there is no evidence, this matter has the appearance of a campaign of bullying and harassment of the DHS director and staff, with the apparent intent of pressuring the director out of office. This whisper campaign of harassment and bullying does real, tangible harm to the public’s trust in county government and specifically human services, an agency which provides superior service to its thousands of clients.
Smiar is chairperson of the Eau Claire County Board.