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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Dane County proposal would mandate benefits to non-married partners
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Kyle Richmond: 'It's a basic issue of fairness.'
Kyle Richmond: 'It's a basic issue of fairness.'

Dane County could soon require all agencies and companies it contracts with to provide benefits, including health care and family medical leave, to employees' domestic partners.

"It's a basic issue of fairness," says Sup. Kyle Richmond, who will introduce the ordinance to the County Board on Thursday. "I think the county needs to lead on this issue."

The proposal, backed by County Executive Kathleen Falk, would require any entity with a county contract worth more than $5,000 to provide the same benefits to domestic partners as it does to spouses. Organizations which now offer no spousal benefits would not have to provide any to domestic partners.

The ordinance would also establish an official county registry for domestic partnerships. This registry, says Richmond, "helps with private employers that offer the benefits, but require you to prove that it's a relationship."

Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin began offering benefits to domestic partners three years ago, after employees asked for it, says Casey Behrend, executive director. But Behrend questions whether the county should dictate what benefits a private agency offers its workers.

"Any time the county starts mandating what organizations can do, it just adds to the burden," he says. "As you add requirements, you have the potential to increase costs."

Richmond cites studies showing that extending benefits to domestic partners increases costs by only 1% to 3%. The ordinance gives small agencies three years to comply and allows companies, if they can't find an insurance provider willing to cover domestic partners, to offer workers a cash equivalent.

No one complains about cost when it's a traditional married couple getting benefits, says Richmond. "Why is cost an issue for one couple, but not for the other?" he asks. "The only thing different is the gender of one of the partners."

Behrend says even a small cost increase may be too much for struggling nonprofits. "If the agencies don't feel they can handle it," he warns, "they may decide to eliminate benefits altogether."

Sup. Chuck Erickson, another sponsor of the ordinance, doubts that will happen. "The real question is, why would you be denying benefits to a separate group?"

Some agencies may object on religious grounds. Major Paul Moore, head of Dane County's Salvation Army, did not return calls. But he recently told the county's Health and Human Needs Committee that his agency is part of a national organization that does not offer such benefits and would find the mandate problematic. In 2001, some Salvation Army branches offered domestic partner benefits, but rescinded them under pressure from the Christian right.

The Salvation Army has county contracts worth nearly $1 million annually to provide homeless services and run its family shelter on East Washington Avenue.

If the ordinance passes, the Salvation Army will be expected to comply. "I think they could figure out a way to make it work," says Erickson. "I don't want to lose them, but this comes down to fairness."

Taking on Tammy

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) has an opponent this fall, though you may not have heard much about him. Peter Theron, a Republican from Madison, entered the race late.

"This is my first campaign," says Theron. "I didn't realize I was waiting so long."

Theron has raised only about $5,000 so far. Baldwin's last campaign filing says she's raised more than $800,000 and has $322,000 cash on hand. But Theron believes she's vulnerable.

"She has a record to defend," he says. "That's her burden."

Theron, who has taught computer science and statistics at UW-Whitewater and Beloit College, attacks Baldwin's inaction on rising fuel prices. "Baldwin sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she's done nothing to increase our supply," he says, adding that the U.S. should be drilling for oil offshore and in Alaska. "We're forcing people to pay through the nose because we don't have any alternatives."

And Theron supports keeping soldiers in Iraq. "We are winning the war," he says. "We need to continue our work."

Although some Madison liberals were angry at Baldwin for not pushing to impeach President Bush, no Democrats are challenging her. Dave St. Amant of Madison intended to run, but failed to obtain the 1,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot.

"I have heard from a number of sources recently that Tammy has become more responsive to the progressive concerns of the community," says St. Amant. "So perhaps I helped in some way."

And, if not, "There's always 2010."

Downscaling Badger Prairie

The dire economy is affecting Dane County's plans for a new Badger Prairie nursing home in Verona. The county planned to pay about $18 million for a new, 120-bed facility, but the lowest bid came in $3 million over budget.

Lynn Green, head of Dane County's Human Services Department, blames rising fuel costs: "That's hit the construction industry pretty hard."

The county is exploring ways to cut costs. "The building currently has some brick on the outside," says Green. "We want to figure out what it would cost if we took the brick off." Also facing the ax are trellises for flowers, a sprinkler system for the lawn, and tile in the bathrooms.

Another option is to reduce the size of the facility. "We could take a whole wing off," says Green, who hopes this won't happen.

The current Badger Prairie has about 112 residents, and often a small waiting list. Demand will grow as baby boomers age. Badger Prairie also takes patients, many with dementia, who would otherwise go to Mendota Mental Health Institute.

"If we downsize beds, we have to look at the tradeoffs," says Green. A bed in Mendota costs nearly $800 a day, compared to just $325 at Badger Prairie. "There go your cost savings."

Fertilize this!

The bad economy could also affect redevelopment plans for the old Royster-Clark plant on the east side. Next week, the city of Madison will hold a community meeting to present a market survey for the site.

"Clearly it's a bad economy for land development," says Ald. Larry Palm. "But there's some interest."

The survey shows the market would support low-cost housing, such as single-family homes under $200,000, or some light industrial. "No big-box retail," Palm says. "There's so much already in the general vicinity."

The city estimates it will cost about $1 million to demolish the former fertilizer plant - not including any environmental remediation that might be necessary. Despite the cost, Palm regularly hears from people interested in the property. "It's clear to me there's a contingent who think this is a viable piece of property."

The hearing is July 23 at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, with an open house at 6 p.m. and a presentation at 7 p.m.

Humane, by any other name?

The Dane County Humane Society may be changing its name. The shelter has a poll on its website (www.giveshelter.org) asking participants to pick between names like Four Lakes Animal Shelter and Greater Madison Animal Partnership.

Shelter officials, including executive director Pam McCloud Smith and board president Cathy Holmes, did not return calls asking why the shelter wants a new name. One clue may come from this (rather ironic) poll question: "Do you think an animal shelter like the Dane County Humane Society has to have the words 'Humane Society' in its name to effectively communicate its purpose or mission?"

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