7 INVESTIGATES: Marathon County stretched thin on foster care funding

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- County reserve funds and one-time federal grants have kept the Marathon County Department of Social Services (MCDSS) budget balanced in recent years. This year, MCDSS director Vicki Tylka says the additional child welfare funding currently making its way through the Republican-controlled legislature could make the difference in breaking even or pulling yet again from county reserves--but that budget still hangs in the balance.

Two years ago, the MCDSS couldn’t cover their funding requirements due to the increasing need for foster care placements and support, Tylka told 7 Investigates. As a result, they had to pull from the county’s reserve fund to keep their programs open.

“That is obviously not an acceptable way to be able to operate our programs,” Tylka noted. Marathon County administrator Brad Karger tells 7 Investigates the county keeps funding equivalent to two months’ revenue in reserve, one of the few counties that is able to do so. But he adds, applying county funds to state services isn’t entirely appropriate.

“When we fund this with property tax, we’re actually not consistent with the purpose of those taxing mechanisms,” he explained, referring to taxes collected to service and enhance property.

In 2018, Tylka would have been in a similar position until a one-time federal grant enabled them to balance their budget. But this year, the situation for MCDSS is currently unclear until the state’s biennial budget is passed.

Last week, the Republican-led state budget committee approved a budget plan that includes an additional $25.5 million annually for child welfare. The Wisconsin Counties Association had asked for an added $30 million, out of which Tylka originally told us she anticipated Marathon County would get about $400,000--which she expected would enable the department to break even. With the reduction, Karger says it’s not easy to estimate how much their own share will be reduced--for example, if the original portion were cut in half, the Marathon County portion would be less than half.

“Usually when they reduce it, more goes to Milwaukee,” he explained, adding that while the formula the Department of Children and Families uses to determine allotments is convoluted, it typically gets applied to counties on the basis of need.

Meanwhile, funding for out-of-home (OOH) placements in Marathon County is increasingly relying on county rather than state resources, a story that is replicated in many counties around the state, Karger says. Since he took over the administrative role in 2008, he says the percentage of funding they’ve provided for OOH care has increased every year.

“Our county is funding well over 50% of the whole cost of Child Protective Services,” Tylka noted. OOH care funding breaks down to $878 on average a month for foster care placement, or about $3,000 a year for children who are placed with relatives. Most expensive of all are treatment facilities, which are budgeted at $140,000 a year.

But when it comes to lack of resources and staffing shortages, Marathon County’s caseworkers aren’t even as overworked as those in other counties in north central Wisconsin. After adding three additional staff positions to the department in 2017, Tylka says each caseworker’s average load is down to 16 cases, just five more than the nationally-recommended 11. Previously, it had been over 20--and counties like Oneida and Price are still experiencing caseloads well over an average of 20 at any given time, according to county data provided to 7 Investigates.

The state legislature is expected to vote on the next biennial budget as soon as Wednesday, but the question remains of whether Democratic governor Tony Evers will sign off on the budget after Republicans slashed many of his proposals.

Part 1: Opioids, meth driving spike in Marathon County foster care