The number of adults that Dane County sent to Mendota Mental Health Institute spiked 77% last year. The state-run facility took in 271 adults from Dane County in 2007, compared with just 153 in 2006.
"2007 was a banner year for admissions," says Fran Genter, the county's administrator for adult community services. "We're not sure yet how 2008 will turn out."
But the county expects Mendota admissions to remain high. Lynn Green, head of the Human Services Department, recently told a county committee that the budget for Mendota - the county pays a per-patient cost, beyond what is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance - could end up $1 million short in 2008.
The county has already had to cover budget deficits for Mendota admissions from previous years: nearly $600,000 in 2006 and $626,000 in 2007.
"Both years were a problem," says Genter, noting the county covered the deficits using money from other programs that underspent their budgets. For 2008, the county increased its budget for Mendota by nearly half a million dollars, to $1.6 million, but could still face a deficit. "It's too soon to tell," says Genter.
The county doesn't track where the increase in patients is coming from. Genter speculates that many are referrals from law enforcement. "Most are people with mental illness," he says. "Only a small percentage have an alcohol or drug problem."
Paul Rusk, a County Board supervisor and head of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, thinks the new patients at Mendota are being turned away from other nursing facilities.
"The facilities are very worried that they're going to get written up," says Rusk, noting many nursing homes have been cited for problems recently. "In the past, they would work longer with a patient, changing their medication or doing other interventions."
Rusk says as the population continues to age, Mendota admissions will continue to increase. People are living longer, which means cases of dementia are on the rise.
"If there isn't a cure soon, 18% of all baby boomers will come down with dementia," says Rusk, who is going to Washington, D.C., next week to lobby Congress for more research funding. "There will be so many that it will likely bankrupt Medicaid and Medicare. This is a national crisis that's coming."
Dane County has several diversion programs to keep people out of Mendota, including using "crisis homes" for short-term care and sending patients to a group home run by the nonprofit Mental Health Center of Dane County. The county is also building a new Badger Prairie nursing home, with nine extra beds, to open in late 2009.
Rusk says the Alzheimer's Association is pushing the state to do more long-range planning to prepare for the increase in patients.
He doesn't believe Family Care, the state's new program for long-term care for the elderly and disabled, will solve the problem. "Family Care only deals with a small percentage of people who qualify for public benefits," he says. "About 80%-85% of people don't qualify for that. They need to broaden it."
Housing trust fund roadblocks
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has proposed using money from the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund to help other Dane County municipalities increase their stock of affordable housing. But in a recent memo, City Attorney Michael May says "there are serious legal questions" with this plan.
Madison's trust fund currently has about $4 million. May says the mayor cannot touch $1.5 million, which originally came from the city's general fund, because the state constitution requires tax money to be spent where it is raised. "In other words," wrote May, "city of Madison taxes should be levied for purely city of Madison purposes."
A regional trust fund "has some appeal," says Ald. Brenda Konkel, who sponsored the ordinance creating Madison's trust fund in 2003. But she doesn't want to raid Madison's fund to pay for it.
"I don't think the mayor could seriously have thought this would fly," she says. "I don't think most Madisonians want their money spent outside the city."
May says the mayor could use the fund's other $2.5 million, but only if the city council agrees to amend the ordinance that created the trust fund. The ordinance originally specified that the money could be spentonly in Madison.
Mayoral aide George Twigg says the mayor will push forward with his plan. "The mayor's belief is that we need to look at affordable housing on a regional basis," he says, adding Cieslewicz will ask the council for access to the $2.5 million. "The plan is still viable."
But Konkel says the council may not agree.
"I have a hard time thinking about the council giving up control of city of Madison money," says Konkel, adding she wants to hear more about the mayor's plan first. "It's not like we've solved our affordable housing problem. We need those resources here in Madison."
Open season on cats?
National animal rescue groups are worried that a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) would allow for the shooting of feral cats. Kind's bill, which has already passed the House, offers federal grants to help "eradicate harmful nonnative species" in national wildlife refuges and adjacent lands.
"It opens up federal grant money to destroy invasive species using lethal methods," says Elizabeth Parowski, spokeswoman for Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit group based in Maryland. "We're asking that the bill be amended so it specifically says you cannot kill cats."
Wisconsin already has a bad rep for a proposal in 2005 that would have allowed licensed hunters to shoot feral cats. The proposal, by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, was ultimately dropped.
Kind's office says his bill is not an attempt to reopen the debate. "The bill never intended to target feral cats in any way," says David Degennaro, Kind's legislative assistant. "Nowhere in there does it say you can shoot feral cats."
Degennaro says the bill simply provides federal funding to state groups or organizations to help preserve wildlife refuges. "It doesn't give authority to individuals to take action on their own," he says, though he acknowledges that groups could eradicate large feral cat colonies if the animals are attacking an endangered species. "That's something they would do anyway, regardless of the grant money."
Yes, we have no hotel plans
There is no hotel planned for the 100 block of West Wilson Street. Apex Property Management has been buying up sites in the area, but says rumors about a potential new development there are not true.
"We really have no idea what we could do," says Bruce Bosben, chairman of the Apex Group. "We don't have any designs. We don't even own all the land."
The rumor took off when Apex officials met with city staff in January to talk about the block. Bosben admits the company had been talking to a hotelier, who eventually backed out. And he says the economy has halted any further plans. "The whole lending market has gone crazy," he says. "The ability to put up condos is out the window."
At least one downtown resident opposes plans for a hotel at the site. "It would be just gigantic," says Rosemary Lee. "It would be as big as the courthouse."
Bosben is perplexed by her concerns.
"Even though we have nothing planned, we still have intense opposition," he says. "I think all of the hype may actually prevent anything from happening there."