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Director of suicide hotline says she has yet to see state budget money for her organization
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Director of suicide hotline says she has yet to see state budget money for her organization

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Wisconsin Capitol

After years of attempts to secure state funding to support its operations, the Center for Suicide Awareness received a $220,000 windfall in this year’s state budget.

But as National Suicide Prevention Week came to a close last week, Barb Bigalke, the group’s executive director, said she was still waiting to see any of the funds directed toward the texting-based suicide prevention hotline she runs.

The Suicide HOPELINE, implemented by the Center for Suicide Awareness, provides immediate emotional support and resources for people in crisis via text message. It also collects data about the HOPELINE’s communications that can help local governments better address suicide. Bigalke said the HOPELINE so far has intervened in at least 110 suicide attempts.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican lawmakers agreed to set aside the $220,000 in the state budget they passed in early July, and the Republican-controlled budget-writing committee has the discretion to release the money at any time.

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But the leaders of that committee aren’t doing so yet, arguing they should wait to allow the Assembly’s Suicide Prevention Task Force to recommend the best responsible use of the funds. The task force plans to recommend a bill be passed to release the funds, meaning it may be several months, if ever, until Bigalke’s organization sees the money.

“The budget was approved, and yet here we sit without the money and without solid answers about not only when we are going to get the money, but if we are going to get the money,” Bigalke said. “What does the Suicide Task Force actually do except hinder an organization that’s already doing suicide prevention work?”

In a joint statement, task force chairwoman Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, and vice chairman Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, said the center will get its funding.

Funds recommended

A Ballweg spokeswoman said the task force will recommend passage of a bill that would call for the release of the center’s funds and direct it to share data it collects with the state. The data can be used to inform municipal governments and organizations causes of distress, such as loneliness or depression. It also tracks the demographics of hotline users and what times of day they’re texting in.

“State funding for the center is critical to our common goals of providing sustainable and readily accessible emotional support for at-risk communities like the farmers, teens, first responders and veterans we heard from at our task force hearings,” Ballweg and Doyle said.

But a bill — and the center’s funding — could take months to materialize because it would need to go through the legislative process. Ballweg and Doyle said they will work to expedite the legislative process, which for Bigalke means she will need to go through the motions of public hearings all over again after having done so already.

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The speaker’s task force has traveled around the state for months gathering expert and public input on how to better prevent suicide in Wisconsin.

Legislative efforts to fund the Suicide Awareness HOPELINE have been unsuccessful. In 2018, a bipartisan bill that would have directed about $138,000 to the Center received unanimous support in the Assembly but went nowhere in the state Senate.

The Legislature’s budget writing committee has authority to release funding for a number of provisions in the budget. It previously received criticism from Evers’ Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for not immediately releasing funds for farmer mental health, although the committee did so earlier this month.

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Bigalke said her organization has had an urgent need for state support for years. After a bill that would have provided funding failed to pass in 2018, Bigalke said she had to let go an outreach coordinator. If the state support provided in the budget doesn’t materialize, Bigalke said not all the counties and organizations that seek data from the hotline to better understand suicide trends will receive it, and she also won’t have the staff to send materials advertising the hotline to the organizations, such as schools, that seek them.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff criticized the Republican-controlled Legislature for holding up the funds.

“It’s time for Republicans in the Legislature to quit playing games with critical funding for mental health resources, like the HOPELINE,” Baldauff said. “We can’t afford to wait when it comes to helping folks in need of support.”

DPI funds available

The budget committee’s leaders, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said they understand the importance of Bigalke’s work. But a Nygren spokesman said his office hasn’t heard the Department of Public Instruction — the state agency that requested the release of the funds — express that the release of the funds is extremely urgent.

DPI requested release of the funds in July.

A Nygren spokesman said if the center did need the funds immediately, the Department of Instruction could draw from a $420,000 annual pool of money to be used for mental health and school grant training programs, which the agency hasn’t done yet.

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A DPI spokesman declined to discuss the possible use of those funds. He said the budget committee asked DPI to work with the Task Force on Suicide Prevention for release of the money, and they have done so.

The back and forth has forced Bigalke and her HOPELINE to experience the complications stemming from split government.

“It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Bigalke said.

Bigalke’s Center for Suicide Awareness, based out of Kaukauna, wants to use the $110,000 in annual funding to upgrade software for the texting hotline to analyze and better understand who’s using it and why.

She also wants to create a website portal that would allow Wisconsin counties to easily access data on how their residents are using the hotline. Those upgrades, she said, could end up costing around $80,000. In addition, she wants to hire another staff member to help Wisconsin counties conduct a deep dive into their own data.

In the long term, state funding could help the Center for Suicide Awareness, which has a roughly $100,000 annual operating budget, achieve long-term sustainability.

“If we don’t get sustainability, because this is a statewide resource, then there is a chance that (the texting hotline) could shut down,” Bigalke said, adding that the license to run the texting hotline is about $25,000 annually, and there are constant upgrades and volunteer training demanding resources.

The budget committee leaders said they always intended for the funds to be released.

“It is our understanding that the Task Force intends to identify ways to best utilize funding that has been set aside for HOPELINE and to ensure appropriate legislative oversight of the use of funds,” Nygren and Darling wrote to DPI Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor.

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