Dane County Supv. Jenni Dye knows what many people think about committees.
"Sometimes people think of committees and commissions as where ideas go to die," she says. "We're hoping the opposite happens."
The commission in question is a new one that Dye helped form, the Dane County Poverty Commission. Announced last week, the commission is being created as a permanent effort to address poverty at the county level. It will consist of five to seven supervisors, a county executive designee and three to five citizens.
It grew out of work done by the county's Task Force on Poverty, a temporary group that drafted a series of recommendations (PDF) in 2009 - including one for a permanent poverty commission. Dye says the new commission includes several supervisors in hopes of keeping the issue on the front burner. "We have so many committees doing great work on so many issues, that as a supervisor it's hard to know what's going on in each committee."
Supv. Heidi Wegleitner, who helped create the new commission, says that having several supervisors sitting on it will help keep the whole board aware of the issues: "The intention is we'd have a critical number of supervisors on the commission, so if we are able to come up with recommendations, there'd be five to seven people who would help get that through the county board and be advocates of those recommendations."
Dye says that, although some county committees already deal with elements of poverty, the issue needs a unified focus. "Poverty is an area that touches so many different areas of county government," she says. "Finding a coordinated way, instead of a piecemeal way, to address these issues is important to dealing with poverty."
Both supervisors say poverty intersects with a variety of other issues, including hunger, racial disparity in the criminal justice system, and access to transportation. The commission will ideally keep track of what other committees are working on and coordinate a holistic approach.
"We've got to start thinking outside the box a little bit," says Wegleitner. "We're dealing with challenges in terms of funding and increased demand. This cuts across all sorts of demographics, from seniors to newborn babies to pregnant women and all different ethnicities. A really important part is to listen and understand the impact on people."
Greta Hansen, executive director of the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin, was chair of the poverty task force and will sit on the commission. "Unless there's a commission in place to keep bringing these issues up, they get set to the side," she says. "It's really easy if you're a policymaker to ignore these issues because they're so complicated."
Other projects on the backburner
Three other county initiatives on poverty are, for now at least, moving slowly.
County staff are working on the request for proposals for two major initiatives that have been in the works for a while: a permanent homeless day shelter and funding for housing co-ops for homeless people.
The county operated a temporary day shelter last winter, but planned all along to open a permanent one that would be open year-round. Last November, Supv. John Hendrick, board chair, said he hoped a permanent shelter could be up and running by July 1.
"That was an optimistic hope," he now says. "The biggest issue is that we don't want to go into another winter without a day shelter. I hope we're going to get through all these steps and have it open Nov. 1."
The language of the request for proposals is still being devised, though Hendrick hopes it will go out soon. The project will likely have two separate RFPs, one to build or renovate a site for the shelter and another to operate it, Hendrick says.
Supv. Carousel Andrea Bayrd came up with the proposal to develop housing co-ops, with an emphasis on serving the homeless. The proposal includes up to $250,000 of funding to build the co-ops. "The holdup is the RFP issues," Bayrd says. "I wish it had come out already."
Also still in the works is a proposal to build single-room-occupancy housing units. Commonly called SROs, these units often have shared bathrooms and common areas, with tenants sleeping in private rooms.
County officials originally hoped to start building these units this year, but the timeline was delayed. Construction is expected to begin next year.