News that Winona County staff planned to move $25,800 in budget items, add a new staff position, and set the county up for over $200,000 in annual spending without informing the County Board or seeking its approval concerned some board members last week. Tension between County Board oversight and staff discretion rose to the surface during the meeting, when board members balked at staff's liberties with the budget and a staff member commented that they felt the board was making them "count paperclips." The fate of a grant-funded program sparked it all.
While they often come with plenty of strings attached, grant funding can be like mana from heaven for local governments. Thanks to a state grant, since 2009, recently released inmates in Winona County have had assistance finding a place to live, finding help for mental health problems and addictions, taking GED classes, securing a job, and more — all of the things ex-inmates need to function in society and not return to jail. As of 2011, the total number of days spent in jail for 54 CARE program clients fell from 6,000 before the program to 822 afterward, reducing county incarceration spending by thousands of dollars.
However, grants run out. After many months of stretching grant funds to keep the program going, the CARE program grant will finally expire at the end of August. When grants end local governments must decide whether to finance the program with general budget funds or let it disappear. County policy dictates that it is up to the County Board to make that decision. That, however, is not what has happened.
County staff decided to fund the program with local levy dollars starting in September, a cost of $25,800 for four months. To continue next year, the program will require more than $200,000 in county funding, plus funding a full-time support staff position. In an interview early last month, prior to any discussion by the County Board, Community Services Director Beth Wilms explained that the CARE program would become a part of her department and that funds from another part of her budget would be relocated to pay for the program through December.
Wilms said the decision to incorporate CARE into the county budget was made by former county administrator Duane Hebert, in consultation the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC). The CJCC is a committee comprised of citizens, private attorneys, and city, county, school, judicial, and state officials. Jim Pomeroy is the only County Board member on the committee. The group has been discussing the "sustainability" of the CARE program for months. Its May minutes note that "plans are underway to transition CARE to Community Services." The full board was informed of the plan last week, when Wilms told the board that financing the CARE program "will take taxpayer dollars, levy dollars now."
Board Chair Marcia Ward became aware of the plan for the CARE program after an interview with the Winona Post last month. Referring to the extra $25,800 planned for funding CARE in the interview, she questioned, "Why do we have wiggle room in the budget? That's why the board wants to be more involved in the budgeting process.
What is it that this money was supposed to be for?"
After that interview, "I delved into [funding plans for the CARE program] a little further and it did become very alarming," Ward commented at last week's board meeting. She noted that the CARE program supervisor, Kalene Engel, is a contractor, not a county employee, yet, "in her meeting minutes it said, 'adjust budget.' And that set off some red flags in my mind," Ward said. "It did really catch my attention when I saw a contractor talking about changing our budget," she added.
Wilms and Holte claimed that the County Board had already approved providing county funding for the CARE program, and suggested that the board would be reneging on that approval if it did proceed. When asked in a subsequent interview when that board approval took place, Holte stated the board had approved levy funding for the CARE program as part of the 2014 budget. She acknowledged, however, that the budget did not actually include any county funding for the CARE program, but that the funds now intended for the CARE program were lumped together with other programs in another part of the budget.
The money "isn't actually budgeted under CARE at this time;" those funds still need to be moved, Finance Director Pat Moga informed Wilms at last week's meeting.
Responding to Moga, Wilms suggested, "So we'll just transfer that from the general budget?"
Ward cut in. "That statement is very disturbing, Pat," she said.
"We're moving money around in the budget, and where is it? Where was it?"
At the meeting, Wilms acknowledged that she did not know where the extra funding was coming from to finance the CARE program, just that it existed. "Our former administrator told me I have it," she explained. In a previous interview Wilms had said the money was in "the administrative portion of our budget." Two days after the meeting, Wilms stated in an email that the funding is coming from budget items labelled as "Program Supplies," "Office Supplies," and "Staff" for the Income Maintenance Unit, a separate branch of the Community Services Department.
Also in that email, Wilms stated that the board "discussed support" for county funding of the CARE program in February and April of 2013. The Winona Post was unable to review videos of those board meetings before it went to press; however, board minutes and reporters' notes from those meetings do not include discussion of the CARE program. The board has not voted to fund the CARE program with county funds.
At last week's meeting, Ward also stated that she had specifically asked during last year's budgeting process whether the current budget included any new positions. The former administrator said it did not include any, but "now I'm hearing there was money somewhere for this position," she said. "The person who made those statements is no longer here so I can't hold them accountable. It's frustrating." Ward continued, asking, "So did we really know what was in our budget?"
"Oversight, we call it," added commissioner Wayne Valentine.
Commissioner Steve Jacob joined in, commenting, "If things should be transparent to anyone it should be the County Board, and we've had troubles with that."
"People should be fired for moving things," joked Information Technology Director Mark Anderson as the board broke for lunch. The board agreed to discuss the issue further next month.
CARE program organizers have applied for a grant that would provide an alternative to much of the county funding needed to continue the program. County leaders will know in August whether the county will receive the grant. It would provide $150,000 per year for two years.
The value of CARE
Many former inmates interviewed by the Winona Post said that finding a landlord or an employer in Winona that will accept them is a major challenge. When former inmates become homeless, returning to jail is almost a foregone conclusion, they said. The CARE program generally does not fix those solutions directly, but case workers refer ex-inmates to existing organizations and opportunities. "Our hope is that when people come out of the jail system, that they get permanent stable housing, that they get employment," Wilms said.
Former administrator Hebert described the CARE program as an investment that would pay off in the long term by reducing county spending on law enforcement and inmates over time. Wilms said that reducing recidivism is not just about saving money on jails, but that it benefits the whole community when ex-inmates become good workers and taxpayers rather than repeat offenders. Ward said the county needs to look closely at how effective the program has been at reducing recidivism.