Our Views: County's most vulnerable shouldn't pay the price for AG's opinion

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

The easiest course for the Rock County Board would be to follow its administrator's recommendation to stop funding four nonprofits in response to a Wisconsin attorney general's opinion concluding state law prohibits counties from funding these groups.

But cutting off funds isn't the right thing to do.

The groups facing cuts—HealthNet of Rock County, Rock Valley Community Programs, Neighborhood Works and United Way Blackhawk Region—extend the reach of local government's safety net. It's unacceptable that the area's poorest and most vulnerable residents pay the price for this new interpretation of state statutes.

Of particular concern is the proposed cut to HealthNet, which provided dental and medical care to nearly 1,500 county residents last year. An estimated 386 residents would lose access to these services if the county board denied the nonprofit the county's annual $57,867 contribution, according to HealthNet CEO Ian Hedges.

One of the ironies of this situation is Rock County launched HealthNet in 1994 with grant funding after a survey identified a need for the nonprofit's services. That need has only grown over the years, particularly for dental care. Many dentists won't serve BadgerCare patients because the health-care plan reimburses dentists for only a fraction of the expenses. HealthNet serves these individuals, paying for their dental work through monetary donations, professionals' volunteered time and government contributions.

Nonprofits fill an important niche in Rock County, freeing government to carry out functions mandated by the state, such as overseeing child protection services. The current setup with HealthNet works well, and HealthNet does its job for much less than what the county would charge taxpayers because a large portion of HealthNet's revenue comes from private donations.

To be clear, we're not labeling the county the “bad guy,” and, to his credit, County Administrator Josh Smith said he has an idea for a workaround. A possible solution is to create a fee-for-service contract with the four nonprofits—thereby eliminating the current contribution model. How to structure a contract so that it doesn't run afoul of the attorney general's opinion is the challenge, Smith noted, and he's still investigating options.

The board must pass the 2018 budget by Tuesday, Nov. 14, which doesn't leave much time to hammer out contracts with the four nonprofits. But the board could allocate money for them in a contingency fund in anticipation of figuring out a contract structure, hopefully by year's end.

Beyond the short term, the board should seek a permanent fix from state legislators. It should lobby lawmakers to change the law, rendering moot the attorney general's concerns. One way to send a message is for the board to pass a resolution, calling on the Legislature to allow counties to fund the types of nonprofits now under scrutiny.

Local government should, after all, be advocating for local control. It shouldn't be the state's job to determine the appropriateness of local funding decisions. For years, the county has found value in the services provided by these four nonprofits, and voters count on the board to get creative and solve problems, whether a lawsuit, legal opinion or state mandate.

Sure, the state might push back against any workaround adopted by the board and ultimately force the county to withhold funding to these entities, but that's a risk worth taking.

It's important that the board be able to say it did everything possible to protect the interests of Rock County's poorest and most vulnerable residents.

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