Joe Parisi

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi

As an area that looks at the “art of the possible,” Joe Parisi said Dane County can be proud of its accomplishments in 2017.  

The county executive specifically highlighted the county’s expansion of its school-based mental health teams as an example of listening to the community's needs, pooling resources and creating partnerships to address issues at the local level.

“We don’t look at why we can’t, we look at why we can,” Parisi said. “When you do that, you end up with a program like our mental health teams that are making a difference in people’s lives right away.”

Parisi created the mental health crisis intervention teams, known as Building Bridges, in 2014 as a pilot program in Madison, Sun Prairie and Verona. It has since grown and covers school districts in DeForest, Middleton-Cross Plains, Wisconsin Heights and Stoughton.

In 2017, Parisi said the county invested $1 million in the program. Schools interested in participating fund half of the program and the county coordinates contracting with the mental health professionals.

As of this fall, 20 mental health professionals were available to work with at least 260 students and families. The “front end approach” to addressing mental health challenges will not only help in the moment but also in future years, Parisi said.

“We see such a growing recognition of the challenges that mental health challenges can present and particularly if they’ve gone on unaddressed by the time someone is an adult,” Parisi said. “If we can get those kids connected to services earlier, we can help those kids and help those families, and we can help get in front of problems that would have developed down the road.”

This year, the county also approved a $76 million jail renovation plan that will eventually bring the county's three jail facilities together in an expanded downtown public safety building. Parisi supported the project, which saw some pushback, because of the county's investment in programs that divert people from the criminal justice system, such as the Community Restorative Court.

“I think this approach that we're taking strikes the right balance,” Parisi said.

‘Level the playing field’

Dane County is responding to areas where cuts at the state and federal level have affected residents, Parisi said. For example, the county is supporting programs that financially assist students get their driver's license and connect those working in the trades to jobs.

“It’s frustrating because these are local resources and time that we have to invest trying to just somewhat level the playing field for families who are left behind by state and federal policies,” Parisi said.

This year, the county expanded a program called Access to Opportunity that provides funding for students who cannot pay the approximately $400 driver education program available in schools.

The initiative has been available in Madison schools since the summer of 2015. With the expansion, Deerfield, DeForest, Marshall, McFarland, Middleton-Cross Plains and Verona can access the program with funds included in the 2018 county budget.

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Through Project Big Step, Dane County looks at job projections in the trade, determines how many workers are needed and then works with groups that help people find jobs.

“If state government was truly interested in empowering people and lifting people and in job training, they would fund drivers ed because there is no more effective jobs program than getting someone their driver's license,” Parisi said.

This year, Republican lawmakers also pushed legislation that would ban the county and other local governments from setting employment rules that differ from state law. Parisi called the proposal “unfortunate” and an attempt at “micromanaging” Dane County.

If enacted, this would affect steps the county has taken to move toward a $15 minimum wage for government workers. The state has a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which is the same as the federal minimum wage.

“On every level, the state is coming in and trying to micromanage Dane County and the irony of the state trying to micromanage Dane County is we are by far the most successful county in this state,” Parisi said, citing that over 50 percent of the private sector job growth in Wisconsin occurs in Dane County.

In April, Parisi was re-elected to another four years leading the county. He also announced he would not pursue running for governor in the 2018 election, questioning whether running for state office would be worth leaving his role as county executive.

Parisi was first elected as county executive in 2011 during a special election to serve out the remainder of former Executive Kathleen Falk’s term and was elected to his first full term in 2013. Parisi also served as Dane County clerk from 1996 to 2004 and in the state Assembly, representing an east side Madison district, from 2004 to 2011.

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