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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009

The Politics of Mismanagement

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When you are county executive of the largest county in the state and dreaming of running for governor, it can be a bit of a problem when the state declares you incompetent at running government programs in your own county.

That was the spot Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker found himself in last week. After months of warnings, the state Department of Health Services announced it was taking over management of Milwaukee County’s public assistance programs because of the county’s “sustained inability to successfully provide services” to poor and working families.

The bureaucratic incompetence wasn’t news to anyone in Milwaukee County who was poor. For years, the county’s poor people have known that applying for food stamps, child care, medical programs and other public assistance meant running a gauntlet of humiliation and degrading treatment.

Single mothers, often with several children in tow, show up every day at the Coggs Center at 12th and Vliet to get in line before the building opens. Once inside, they can wait all day without ever seeing a caseworker and have to come back the next day to begin the same process all over again.

A call center to direct people in need to county programs receives hundreds of thousands of calls every month. Fewer than 5% of those calls get through—the rest receive a busy signal.

Even many of those who manage to apply for services are unfairly denied benefits. Of particular concern to the federal government is an error rate of nearly 20% of applicants who were denied food stamps they were entitled to receive.

Error rates that exceed federal and state standards are at the heart of a class-action lawsuit against the state and county governments over denial of benefits to people who qualify for government assistance. That lawsuit also provided an enormous incentive for state government to try to improve services to the poor in Milwaukee County.

Dancing Around

Walker had to do some fast dancing when word came down that the state was finally going to make good on its repeated threats to take over administration of the county’s mismanaged programs.

The day before the takeover was to be announced, Walker released a letter to Karen Timberlake, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, blaming cuts in state funding for the mismanagement and urging the state to take total control of the programs.

In other words, you can’t fire me: I quit. Then, the day after the state takeover, Walker denounced it, using an entirely different argument. It was politics, he said, suggesting it was related to his reported interest in running for governor.

Gov. Jim Doyle was “trying to create an issue and deflect blame for the problems the state has had.”

What Walker really wanted was for the state to run all public assistance programs with state employees. Since he has been county executive, Walker has proposed systematically dismantling all of county government. Walker has proposed turning over the parks and transit system to regional authorities while privatizing the airport and just about everything else in sight.

When Milwaukee County doesn’t have to do anything anymore, taxes will really be low. Timberlake crossed up Walker by announcing that she intended to hire new managers to run the county programs, but would continue to use county workers. The state also intends to fill many of the budgeted county positions Walker has left unfilled, leading to enormous caseloads for county workers and the woefully understaffed call center.

Despite Walker’s complaints about the level of state funding, the state pays more per capita for the administration of public assistance in Milwaukee County than it does in any other county in the state.

The $55 million budget for income support programs in Milwaukee County includes only about $3 million in county funds, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments. Timberlake said it was reasonable for the county to take some financial responsibility for its own citizens in need.

It was the second time in recent weeks Walker found himself out of step with other levels of government in meeting the needs of the growing number of county residents facing financial hardship as a result of the current economic crisis.

Other state and local politicians were dumbfounded when Walker announced he didn’t intend to apply for federal economic stimulus funds for Milwaukee County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Now the state says Walker has failed to provide public assistance to families in need as many citizens face the worst economic crisis of their lifetimes.

Then again, maybe there’s a method to Walker’s missteps. Republicans who oppose a federal economic stimulus to avert another Great Depression may well embrace a Republican candidate for governor who has made it hard for poor people to receive government benefits.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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