At a recent public forum on keeping the mentally ill out of jail, Ron Lampert, head of Journey Mental Health Center, said Dane County’s Department of Human Services has returned surpluses of more than $60 million to the county’s general fund since 2002, including $6.2 million in 2015.
“That money could be reinvested in mental health services,” Lampert told those gathered last month at the forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Dane County.
Lampert, who became president and CEO of the Madison area’s main safety-net provider of mental health services a year ago, was tapping into a long-standing debate over whether human services surpluses should help balance the county’s budget or be directed toward unmet health care needs.
“Why aren’t those agencies that generated that surplus through billing, and seeing more and more clients, not allowed to reinvest that money into their programs?” asked Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry. “We have growing needs in the community for the safety net.”
Lynn Green, the county’s director of human services, said agencies the county contracts with generate only part of the surpluses, which have helped fill deficits in the sheriff’s office and other departments, bolstering the county’s bottom line.
“When there’s a good, healthy general fund, they don’t need to make reductions across the board,” Green said. “Since human services is over 50 percent of the budget, human services benefits greatly from Dane County being financially stable.”
Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi, said human services “faces a variety of expenses that vary greatly each year and is encouraged — like all departments — not to run deficits.”
Since 2011, human services has returned $25 million to the general fund, Wescott said. During the same period, its budget has increased by $54 million, to $296 million, he said.
County supervisors addressed the controversy over the surpluses in November, when they said any human services money remaining after deficits in other departments are filled will go into a human services fund, not the general fund, beginning this year.
Sup. Heidi Wegleitner said the new policy doesn’t go far enough. She has introduced amendments to keep all extra money within human services unless two-thirds of the County Board agrees to spend it on other things.
“What has been happening is unacceptable, given the tremendous need we have in our community,” Wegleitner said. “If there are departments that need more revenue, they should be looking at generating outside revenue.”
Lampert said in an interview that Journey could use additional money to expand treatment sites, boost substance abuse programs, add services for the homeless, serve more teenagers and help keep people out of the jail and Mendota Mental Health Institute.
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“There’s a lot that could be done to plug some gaping holes in our mental health system,” he said.
Ketcham said she and about two dozen other clergy met with Parisi several years ago because they felt the county was trying to get churches to contribute more to the safety net while diverting human services surpluses away from it.
“We said, ‘We don’t like this budgeting practice. This does not seem honest,’ ” she said.
Fees for vehicle registration or vacant buildings could help raise additional revenue to fill deficits, as is done in some communities, Ketcham said.
Green said most of the human services surpluses come from job vacancies, unexpected Medicaid payments or reduced demand for services, such as a decreased need for foster care and related programs for children in 2015.
Using the surpluses to expand mental health or substance abuse services would be tricky because the extra money isn’t guaranteed, she said.
“This is one-time-only money,” Green said. “Expanding programming just to take it away a year later has some real issues.”
Nonprofits want to access the surpluses so they can have their own reserve funds, she said. “Should taxpayer money be sitting unused in a reserve?” she asked.
Lampert said Journey doesn’t want to use the surplus to build reserves. “We want it to prevent hospitalizations in Mendota as well as expanding services to under-served populations,” he said.
County controller Chuck Hicklin said departments with the largest deficits in recent years include the treasurer, register of deeds, public safety communications and juvenile courts.
Human services had annual surpluses ranging from $1.6 million to $7.2 million from 2002 to 2015, for a total of more than $60 million, Hicklin said.
Surpluses from human services and other departments have helped the general fund recover from the recession and restore a AAA bond rating, he said. The general fund had a deficit of $5.1 million in 2010 but was up to more than $30 million at the end of 2015.