Oma Vic McMurray didn't want to do it. But the Madison resident, who provides child care out of her home, had no choice. She used to reserve spots for children of low-income families, but state cuts in subsidies have forced her to make those spots available to others.
"I feel bad about that," she says. "I want to be there for those children. But right now, I can't afford it."
Last year, to help plug a $70 million budget gap, the state froze its subsidies to child-care providers at 2005 levels. It doesn't plan to raise the rates again until 2009.
The state's Department of Workforce Development has also restructured the way it calculates what to pay. The department used to do a countywide survey to determine the market rate for child care in a given area. But in early 2006, it began lumping Dane County in with Milwaukee, which has a much larger population of low-income families who use child care. As a result, the rate Dane County providers get for needy children has tanked.
"I personally lost $5,000 in the first year," says McMurray, who had to take out a loan to pay her bills.
George Hagenauer of Community Coordinated Child Care, a nonprofit group that supports Dane County providers, says this change effectively lowered rates here by 7% to 8%, which he estimates cost the county's child-care providers close to $1 million in 2006. And freezing the rates at 2005 levels probably cost providers another half million, he says, since the market rate for child care increased by 2% to 5% last year.
"That's a lot of money to lose from the child-care market in Dane County," says Hagenauer. "Dane County is actually in much worse shape than the rest of the state."
The state blames stagnant federal funding for the changes. "Over the last 10 years, the enrollment of children statewide in the program has tripled," says Jessica Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Workforce Development. "At the same time, our program costs have increased, and federal funding has remained flat."
Erickson says Dane County's provider rates rose faster than inflation from 2001 until 2006. So the department combined Dane County with Milwaukee to make rates more equitable statewide.
"This allows us to stretch our limited resources," she says. And "by freezing rates, we are able to continue to provide child-care services to all eligible low-income families without having to reduce eligibility or implement waiting lists."
McMurray says she's unable to provide health care or retirement benefits to her two workers. And she can't afford to take out another loan to make ends meet. "The state is so proud they don't have a waiting list," she says. "It's because they keep doing things like shortchanging me."
County moves to protect infant, after the fact
Dane County's Department of Human Services is refusing to release any records related to Anastasia Vang, the six-week-old infant who was allegedly killed by her mother last summer. A county social worker sent Vang back home, even after doctors at UW Children's Hospital warned that the baby was likely being abused.
The county recently rejected an open records request from Isthmus for the case file, citing federal and state laws that protect the dead child's confidentiality.
A cynic might wonder if the county may be a wee bit more concerned about protecting itself. Its own internal investigation, conducted last fall, found that it had followed all the rules. The state's Department of Health and Family Services is still working on its own report.
County Supv. David Worzala, chair of the county's Health and Human Needs Committee, is waiting until this report is complete. "For us to jump in prior to that would be a mistake," he says. "After the state's investigation, we'll definitely talk about it."
Worzala says that it "would get quite complicated" for his committee to hold its own investigation. And now that Vang's mother, Ee Lee, 23, has indicated that she may sue the county for failing to protect her child (Madison.gov, 12/20/07), Worzala says holding hearings "might muddy the waters as to the legal issues."
Realtors don't fight the power
Despite some pressure from a member of its own board of directors, the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin has not taken a position on where in Dane County a new 345-kilovolt transmission line should be built.
"Our association currently supports the need for the power upgrade," says Phil Salkin, the Realtors' government affairs director. "That's as far as we have gone."
The American Transmission Company has proposed two routes for its line - one along the Beltline and another through rural Dane County. A coalition of businesses is opposing the Beltline route, saying a massive power line suspended from 120-foot towers could depress property values by as much as 14%. But Salkin isn't so sure.
"Power lines are a feature of most urban areas," he says. Besides, not building the line could also have an impact: "It would be very difficult for homeowners to sell their houses if it became apparent that Dane County would have power outages."
But Mary Fish, a member of the Realtors' board of directors, believes the line could affect home values. In a blog posting, Fish wrote, "I can tell you with confidence that if you put two similar homes side by side, but the second has high-power transmission lines nearby (especially within sight), the second home will not sell for as much as the first.... I have personally had clients refuse to go into homes where they see transmission lines nearby (or even in the distance)."
Fish noted that many area organizations support ATC's plans, but she doesn't think the Realtors should jump on board. "I feel we have an obligation to protect the homeowners who will have little say on how ATC's lines affect their biggest investment - their homes."
Arb neighbors prevail
The Arboretum neighborhood has won its battle against developer Darren Kittleson, who wanted to build two new houses and expand a third on one small lot. After facing furious opposition, Kittleson recently sold the entire plot to a single owner, who will not build any new houses.
"It was the best possible solution," says Ron Kalil, president of the Arboretum Neighborhood Association.
Kittleson did not return a call. But Kalil says he believed the developer sold the land in part because the neighborhood association and state Department of Natural Resources are suing Dane County's Board of Adjustment for approving the project. They argue that development in the Arboretum could hurt nearby Lake Wingra.
It's not clear whether the lawsuit will continue, now that the land has been sold.
Kalil says the neighborhood was able to win in a situation where defeat initially seemed likely. "It really did pull the entire neighborhood together," he says. "Any developer looking at the neighborhood now, mindful of what happened to Darren Kittleson, will think, 'I'll go somewhere else. These people won't roll over.'"
And he thinks the neighborhood's battle could be an inspiration for others. "I really do hope others who followed it might not feel helpless if they're in a similar situation."