Several members of the public on Wednesday called on the Dane County Board to make budget cuts to the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
Of the more than 20 people who spoke on the proposed 2021 Dane County budget during a public hearing Wednesday, about half spoke against funding for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We need to divest from the sheriff, and we need to invest in the community,” said Hannah Crossley, who spoke during the Zoom meeting.
At $132.5 million, funding for public safety and criminal justice — which includes the Sheriff’s Office, Clerk of Courts, District Attorney’s Office and other departments — makes up the second-largest share of the proposed $615.5 million operating budget, or 21.5%.
The Sheriff’s Office is funded at $86.9 million in the proposed operating budget, which Dane County Executive Joe Parisi introduced Oct. 1.
The funding level is similar to 2020. Last year, the board approved $84.7 million for the Sheriff’s Office, but is estimating that the county will allocate $88.7 million for 2021.
Parisi dipped into the county’s rainy day fund to offset losses from the COVID-19 crisis and avoid major cuts to operations in the coming year. He said county government services will continue “largely as we know them” next year.
But some residents, including Allison Bell Bern, said Parisi should have made major cuts to the Sheriff’s Office instead of sustaining funding.
“This budget does not take enough away from the sheriff’s budget,” Bell Bern said.
Many said funding for the Sheriff’s Office should instead be put toward housing, social services, support for the homeless and the county’s Black community. Megan Roman, a Monona resident, said the county should “invest in people, not the jails.”
Defunding law enforcement has been a frequent demand of protesters who took to the streets in Madison this summer to fight against racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“Can we please do something?” Bell Bern asked board members. “Can we please listen to the voices of people who are in the streets?”
Dane County is only partway through the budget process. Board members were not taking any action on the budget Wednesday. Committees are in the process of introducing amendments.
So far, the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee has proposed only two amendments that would make cuts to the Sheriff’s Office.
Sup. Heidi Wegleitner, 2nd District, proposed a budget amendment that would remove funding for three sheriff’s deputies, which would decrease operating costs by $283,000.
Another amendment would cut $35,000 for “less-lethal” weapons — such as tear gas, pepper spray and sponge-tipped projectiles — that were used as crowd-control measures against local protesters this summer. Wegleitner, along with Sup. Elena Haasl, 5th District, have proposed the cut.
“The historic uprising in defense of Black lives has shed new light on the harm caused by the domestic use of crowd control weapons, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic,” the amendment states.
Police, however, have said such weapons are needed to de-escalate large-scale, violent crowds. Acting Madison Police Chief Vic Wahl recently called a city proposal to ban the tools impractical and unrealistic.
The amendments will be considered by the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The County Board will vote on the capital and operating budgets in early November.
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