Marathon Co. DA denied extra funding
By Peter Weinschenk The Record Review
The Marathon County Board of Supervisors set a 2020 budget and levy on Thursday after rebuffing a request by district attorney Theresa Wetzsteon to fund two extra positions in her office.
The vote to fund an extra assistant district attorney and legal secretary died 11-22 after a lengthy debate.
Supervisors E.J. Stark, Rothschild, chairman of the Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee, and Jeff Zriny, Wausau, championed extra funding for the district attorney’s office. Other supervisors voting yes were supervisors Donna Krause, Wausau, Arnie Schlei, town of Easton, Loren White, Weston, Allen Christiansen, Ringle, Jean Maszk, Mosinee, John Durham, Mosinee, Tom Seubert, Stratford, Maynard Tremelling, Spencer, and Richard Gumz, town of Holton.
Missing at the meeting were supervisors Jim Schaefer, Wausau, Bill Miller, town of Rib Mountain, Randy Fifrick, Kronenwetter, Matt Bootz, town of Texas, and Jeff Johnson, Wausau.
The vote followed a lengthy, emotional presentation Tuesday by Wetzsteon, who repeated longstanding complaints that her office is grossly understaffed, lawyers in her office suffer burn-out and that, in order to maintain quality prosecution of crimes, she may be forced to end diversion programs, which would flood the already crowded county jail with prisoners.
Speaking at a Tuesday budget hearing, current and past Marathon County assistant district attorneys detailed how a staff shortage caused unbearable stress, especially as they, as inexperienced attorneys, were given gruesome homicides and sexual assaults to prosecute while being responsible for hundreds of other cases.
Wetzsteon said the state legislature in 2020 funded 4.5 new assistant district attorney positions for Marathon County, but that county administrator Brad Karger used part of the new funding to convert county funded positions in the district attorney’s office to state funded positions. Gov. Tony Evers, in turn, gave one Marathon County assistant district attorney to Milwaukee County. Wetzsteon said Marathon County would in 2020 get an extra assistant district attorney and, through the county, a new victim witness specialist, but she needs more manpower. She called for an additional assistant district attorney and a paralegal.
Wetzsteon recommended a cut of $156,100 from the county’s Start Right program, a 25-year-old program that seeks to help at-risk families, to pay for her new positions. Supervisor Stark supported funding the added DA’s positions. He said Wetzsteon’s offi ce ran a “whole host” of jail diversion programs, including an OWI and drug court, that kept jail populations manageable. He noted St. Croix, Brown, Outagamie and Fond du Lac were counties that fund assistant district attorney positions.
Supervisor Zriny argued that the cut to Start Right was minor and that its reported impact was exaggerated. He said the county could not control its jail population if prisoners were not prosecuted quickly. He noted that one county inmate languished in county jail for 200 days waiting for his case to finally get before a judge.
Supervisor Gail Krause, Wausau, said the county board had to get control of the local crime situation, independent of whose responsibility it was to fund positions.
“Our crime doesn’t affect the state,” she said. “It affects us right here. I think we need to take care of ourselves.”
David Nutting agreed, saying there was a “tsunami” of crime sweeping the county and that it required immediate action to deal with it.
“The emergency is now,” he said.
Most supervisors, however, opposed the proposal.
Matt Bootz, town of Texas, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said in a written statement he agreed that the county’s district attorney’s office was underpaid and shortstaffed, but that this was the state’s problem, given that hiring assistant district attorneys was a state responsibility.
He objected to taking money for the new staff from Start Right after his committee has three times voted to protect the program from cuts.
County board chairman Kurt Gibbs, town of Cassel, said he disagreed with the county paying for what were state funded positions, especially when the state imposes levy limits on counties.
“To me, that makes no sense,” he said.
Gibbs added that the cut to Start Right would have a significant, not minor impact to services, especially those provided in rural western county villages.
He said the cuts would halt nurse contacts with 121 women after birth, cancel visits to 18 at-risk children and close down Play and Learn sessions in Ath- ens, Edgar, Hatley, Marathon, Mosinee, Spencer, Stratford and Wausau. These session cuts would affect 445 children.
Supervisor Katie Rosenberg, Wausau, said she objected to budget cuts that would impact the county’s “most vulnerable babies.”
“That does not get us where we want to go,” she said.
Supervisor Ka Lo, Wausau, said the county should not pick up the cost of assistant district attorneys and that the state legislature should shoulder the blame for failing to adequately staff district attorney offices statewide. She did not want to blame Gov. Evers for the prosecutor situation. “Let’s put the blame where it belongs,” she said.
Trying to reach a compromise, supervisor Seubert proposed to trim every department by one-sixth of one percent to raise $266,666 and pay for the extra district attorney positions. The plan failed in a 29-4 vote.
Board members said Seubert’s idea was bad budgeting.
Chairman Gibbs said that even a small cut to the county budget could cause major, unknown ramifications, especially if grants or matching revenues were involved.
“This might seem like a simple, easy solution, but it is not that simple,” he said.
Supervisor Jacob Langenhahn, town of Marathon, said Seubert’s idea was not well thought out, because it would require a cut in law enforcement, too. “That’s unacceptable,” he said.
Langenhahn said the premise of Seubert’s motion was that department heads could not be trusted to honestly budget for their needs, but, instead, added unneeded fat to their requests that would now be cut.
“That sends a bad message to our employees,” he said.
During the debate, Gibbs said the county needed to undertake a comprehensive review of its criminal justice system in order to get a global picture on funding and staffing, especially if the county will receive funding for sixth circuit court judge.
Gibbs said the review needs to address the staffing shortage at the district attorney’s office, but to look at needs in the clerk of court’s office and at the sheriff’s department.
He said the county needed to find a way to accommodate the county’s justice system within its budget. He noted the county’s health insurance premium increase this year exceeded the amount the county has to increase taxes under levy limits.
Board members reached a compromise on cutting funding for non-county not-for-profit agencies.
In two separate budget amendments, the board used projected savings from the retirement of administrator Brad Karger to shield five of 18 non-county agencies from 25 percent funding cuts. The agencies which will get full funding include Community Action Program, United Way 211, Women’s Community, Marathon County Historical Society and the Economic Development Boot Camp. The full funding is good for only a single year.
The agencies which will be cut include Crime Stoppers, Healthy Teens, Marathon County Development Corporation, Partners for Progressive Agriculture, Wisconsin Valley Fair and Judicare Mediation Services.
Some board members called for the county board to reduce its number from 38 to 19, using saved county board salaries to fund the not-for-profit agencies.
Debate on that initiative was postponed until next year. The board committed to having a task force to look at county board size.
In the end, board members settled on a $170,927,753 budget with a $50,610,851 property tax levy. This includes a $1,709,431 debt service tax. The final tax rate was set at $4.71 per thousand dollars of fair market property.
County taxes on an average priced $158,756 home will be $747.74.