YORKVILLE — The Racine County Board, in a 12-7 vote on Nov. 2, said the county couldn’t afford moving $20,000 in the 2021 county budget to help four nonprofits.
During the same meeting, by a 16-2 vote, the full 2021 county budget was approved despite concerns being raised about the Racine County Sheriff’s Office getting a budget increase of $1.87 million, a 10.3% jump.
The 2021 budget includes a total of $181.2 million in expenditures. That’s a nearly 8% increase over 2020’s budget, put together before the pandemic hit.
The proposal would have provided $20,000 more to aid four organizations the county already helps fund: the Women’s Resource Center, a trauma-informed care organization focusing on survivors of domestic violence and abuse; Racine Vocational Ministry, which helps people getting out of prison find work; Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, which runs the tiny home village for veterans at risk of homeless on Yout Street; and Faith Hope & Love, which supports local kids in crisis.
District 1 Supervisor Nick Demske of Racine, who proposed the movement of the $20,000, suggested that building up those nonprofits “might reduce the burden on the county” to provide similar services.
“It feels like we’re going the wrong way,” Jody Spencer, supervisor for District 5, said regarding the continued cuts to supporting human services.
Simultaneous to that transfer of funds being rejected, Demske shared concerns by how much money was going to the Sheriff’s Office without much discussion. He pointed out how, in 2018 as Foxconn plans appeared to crystalize, the county publicly advocated for the Sheriff’s Office getting a $1.5 million grant to add six positions.
Human services vs. law enforcement
To get a better understanding of the county’s law enforcement spending, Demske — along with District 2 Supervisor Fabi Maldonado of Racine — connected with New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a policy research nonprofit whose motto is: “To drive change. To urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities.”
A Vera analysis of Racine County’s spending and crime data highlighted the following:
- Twenty years ago, the county was spending double what it was spending on law enforcement (around $25 million) on human services (around $50 million). By 2012, the county was spending similar amounts on both (around $37.5 million). For 2021, more than half of the county’s $57.47 million tax levy will go to “Criminal Justice & Courts” spending.
- Violent crime in the county fell each year from 2015-2019, from nearly 6,000 incidents down to little more than 3,000.
- Arrest totals have fallen too, from an average of 1,981.5 arrests per year in 2015-2016 down to an average of 1,050 in the three years that followed. During that time the Sheriff’s Office’s patrol positions have grown from 72 to 100.
- While arrests have gone down, the jail population has gone up, a result of pretrial arrestees taking up a larger percentage of inmates. Since 2015, spending on the jail has increased by 31%. According to a nationwide Vera study, the cost of keeping an inmate in jail can be near $200 per day.
- Largely due to unanticipated overtime pay, the Sheriff’s Office has exceeded its allotted budget by an average of $1,023,960 since 2014.
- The largest portion of the Sheriff’s Office’s budget goes to wages: more than $12.41 million planned for 2021, five times greater than the second-biggest expense of $2.44 million budgeted for insurance.
Much of this aligns with trends seen nationwide and statewide. The biggest expenditure for local governments in Wisconsin is law enforcement, according to an analysis from the Wisconsin Budget Project. Similarly, Wisconsin local governments have seen their law enforcement expenditures grow 24% between 1999 and 2018, while expenditures on health and human services have fallen by 19% over that same timeframe.
“In the last 20 years, spending for the county on Human Services has declined by tens of millions of dollars, and spending on law enforcement has increased by about $10 million,” Demske said.
‘Not apples to apples’
County Executive Jonathan Delagrave, who previously served as the county’s human services director and rarely speaks during County Board discussions, countered some of Demske’s points later in the meeting.
Delagrave said that the statistics presented do not tell the whole story, and that comparing crime rates and law enforcement expenditures, “it’s not apples to apples.”
“The services that are rendered by a Sheriff’s Office oftentimes relate to our crime rate, but oftentimes don’t,” Delagrave said. “The increases (in spending) you’ve seen over the last few years I think are worthy to the county, but are not in terms of what I would say police cars on the street or boots on the ground.”
For one, the correctional officers of the Racine County Jail had the lowest pay rate in the state. It’s since been raised by about $3.50 per hour.
“If we consistently have the lowest paid corrections officers in the State of Wisconsin, we’re either not going to have corrections officers, or the talent that we have as corrections officers are going to be low,” Delagrave said.
Additionally, prior to summer 2014, the Racine County Courthouse was one of only a few courthouses in the state that didn’t have Sheriff’s Office deputies staffing it. Now that “reserve deputies” are working in the courthouse five days a week, it’s pushed the Sheriff’s Office’s costs up, while Delagrave said that having deputies in the building protects “the safety of the individuals in the courthouse and our judges and judges’ staff.”
Still, Demske said, he has been left wondering what “community benefits” have resulted from the Sheriff’s Office receiving the support it has while other groups remain strapped for cash.
“Do we have less homelessness? How is law enforcement affecting drug addiction? Do we have less drug addiction?” he asked. “What are the community outcomes? What is the return on investment that we’re getting in this, since we keep continually investing more and more in this particular structure of the county (referring to the Sheriff’s Office) rather than the other structures of the county?”
Budget passes 16-2
When Demske brought up his concerns on Nov. 2, he noted it was already too late to bring any major changes to the budget before the end of the year — although he and Supervisor Fabi Maldonado both ended up voting against the budget.
“I do not think it would have been appropriate for me to try to have made amendments or alternatives really without doing much longer consensus-building campaigns, not just with my colleagues on the County Board but really with the community, also,” Demske said. In 2021, however, the supervisor said he plans to push for more conversations surrounding this.
District 15 Supervisor John Wisch, who still said he was supportive of the 2021 budget, noted he wants “to do some research into” law enforcement spending following up on the facts presented in Vera’s analysis.
As evidenced by other supervisors’ comments — Finance and Human Resources Committee Chairman Bob Miller referred to the $1.87 million increase as “necessary safety expenditures for the Sheriff’s Office” and that the budget as a whole was “responsible” — and the 16 votes in favor of the budget, momentous change appears unlikely in the short term.
District 6 Supervisor Q.A. Shakoor II of Racine indicated he was opposed to changing the pace on law enforcement spending. The former city alderman pointed out how, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, parts of the City of Racine had the highest crime rate per capita in the State of Wisconsin. Today, some of those same neighborhoods no longer are considered crime centers.
“I want to agree with a lot of what Supervisor Demske has said. However, there is one thing we’ve been saying on this County Board for a long time: the government, the police department, sheriff’s department, humans services are not Mom and Dad,” Shakoor said. “County, city, state, federal government cannot do anything about that but be a partner. We have got to somehow put families back together. When families are put back together, a lot of the problems will be resolved.”