If Dane County approves a plan to cut $60,000 from Valley Packaging in its 2008 budget, Sue Swan could be out of a job.
The Madison woman has worked at Valley, a sheltered workshop for people with mental health problems or developmental disabilities, for more than a year.
"It's fun," says Swan of her job packaging batteries and gum. "It's neat to see how fast you can go."
Swan struggles with depression and other mental health problems, as well as physical injuries from being hit by a car. She often misses work due these problems and, at a previous job, bothered coworkers by talking to herself.
"We take people who have tried being out in the community and weren't successful," says Jim Auchue, Valley Packaging's director. "The whole purpose is to make people feel like they're going off to a job."
Valley Packaging, a nonprofit organization, contracts with local manufacturers for small packing orders that can be done by hand. Auchue says Dane County's proposed cut would force the company to lay off 26 of its 96 workers.
Auchue believes Dane County ultimately wants to shutter the sheltered workshop. "They just have this predominant theory that everyone with disabilities has to be in the community," he says. "Dane County really strongly discourages anybody from coming here."
Lynn Green, the county's Human Services director, disputes that. "I very much like their operation," she says. "This has nothing to do with the quality of what they've been doing."
Green says the department had to cut $2.6 million from its $219 million budget. She decided to prioritize getting mental health treatment to people on waiting lists. "Work is very important, but if you don't have stabilization, treatment and medication, then nothing else can happen."
Auchue notes that many of his workers aren't eligible for services from Dane County. The company provides case managers who act as job coaches, as well as help workers find housing and health care.
Swan says she was denied services by Dane County because she is not severely disabled or in crisis. Her only support is her case manager at Valley Packaging. Losing this person would be "pretty awful," says Swan, who doubts she could manage on her own. "I'm extremely limited in what I can do."
Since coming to Valley Packaging, Swan says she's made many friends. If the company is forced to lay workers off, "it would leave a lot of people without a purpose or a sense of accomplishment."
Another cruel cut
Dane County Human Services is also proposing to cut $100,000 from its $175,000 budget for motel vouchers for the homeless. People get the vouchers when the area's shelters are full.
"The vouchers are used for the most critical cases," says Lisa Subeck, a housing advocate for the YWCA. "Families who are sleeping in their cars or on the streets. If someone's going into a motel, it's because there's no other option - they have no place else to go."
Residents typically stay in a motel for two to three weeks before space opens up at a shelter. Subeck says about 100 families a year use the vouchers.
"These are very difficult choices," says Lynn Green of Human Services. "A lot of our money is targeted. There are a lot of things we are mandated to do, and we can't do anything about it."
The county, says Green, must pay for things like W-2 and child protective services. That means the only programs left to cut are nonmandated services, like the motel vouchers. "We don't get any outside support for it," says Green. "We could eliminate it and it would legally be okay."
Green complains that the state does not give its fair share for many mandated programs. For instance, the state funds only about a third of the staffers at the county's Job Center, which runs W-2, forcing the county to cover the remaining costs. "The problem is, how much can local taxpayers contribute? That's the quagmire."
Subeck insists the county could find the money for the motel vouchers somewhere. "It's a basic need," she says. "I can't believe they can't come up with $100,000 in the budget to shelter children."
Abstinence under fire
Eight Madison alders abstained from last week's vote on a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The high number of abstentions surprised state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison).
"Abstentions are an extraordinary situation," he says, adding that he can recall only two times in recent years that they've occurred in the Assembly, both times by lawmakers who had a conflict with their jobs or families. "Outside of that, it is basically unheard of."
The Madison Common Council once had a rule requiring alders to vote yes or no, unless they had a direct conflict. Not doing so meant censure or a fine. But in 1983, Ald. Pam Wrzeski sued the city over the rule, and a federal court found it violated an alder's free speech rights. Alders may now abstain from any vote they want, although the federal court noted, "there can be no doubt that a representative who consistently dodges difficult or controversial issues by not voting on them does a disservice to his or her constituency."
Ald. Michael Schumacher abstained from the impeachment vote, even though he believes Bush's actions as president should be investigated. "My constituents feel the Common Council should be more focused on local issues," he says. "If I had run for the House of Representatives, then I would be the right person to vote on impeachment."
And Schumacher didn't vote no because "I respect the people who supported this. I did not want to dishonor them."
Before the council's vote, Ald. Eli Judge quoted Sen. Russ Feingold, who argues that impeaching Bush would distract Congress from more important work. Judge agrees. "I feel Congress has other things they should focus on - like improving health care or getting us out of Iraq."
Sounds like a no vote, right? Judge actually abstained. "I don't believe the city council is the avenue for such things," he explains.
Holy scheduling conflict!
Supv. Carousel Bayrd will not be attending a neighborhood meeting on west-side crime Thursday night. The meeting - a follow-up to one last month that drew more than 400 residents - is scheduled during Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish high holy day.
"I'm frustrated that the holiday wasn't considered," she says. "You are going to have a community meeting and part of the community won't be able to be there."
About a half-dozen city and county meetings are scheduled for this Wednesday and Thursday nights, both part of the Rosh Hashanah high holy day observance. Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele, who has been organizing the west-side meeting on crime, said in an email to Bayrd and the city's alders that Madison police chose this date, "and I was not consulted."
Bayrd says the cops have offered to set a second meeting time for those who can't attend Thursday. But she thinks meetings should not be scheduled on Rosh Hashanah in the first place. "I don't expect everyone to know when the holiday is. I don't know when Easter is every year - but that's what calendars are for."