Last week, the state announced it would take over Milwaukee County’s public assistance programs.

The immediate reaction was predictable: Liberals like Paul Soglin dumped on County Executive Scott Walker for the problem. Conservatives like Boots and Sabers defended Walker and accused Gov. Jim Doyle of partisan politics for taking over the program.

Both sides are missing the real story – of how completely dysfunctional county government has become. Walker is at fault, to be sure, but the County Board is equally culpable. They refuse to compromise on anything, even if it means thousands of poor people won’t get the food stamps, child care and medical assistance they need. And some of the board members represent districts with high numbers of working poor people. Yet they are more concerned with scoring points against Walker and shooting down his proposals.

Just how bad is the county call center and its public assistance structure? County officials admit that 95 percent of the hundreds of thousands of calls to the center don’t get answered. The county fails to process 30 percent of its benefit applications within the required seven days, with some families waiting months for assistance. In 2007, 60 percent of county decisions to deny food or health care benefits were overturned within two months. In 2008, one in five deserving applicants were cut off from the program because of errors by the county.

The system is a scandal and has been for years. The state fined the county $74,500 for delays in processing food stamp applications in late 2007 and early 2008. And federal officials have pressured the state to do something about the county’s horrendous rate of errors.

If the measure of a government is how it serves the poorest of its citizens, then Milwaukee County is a dismal failure.

Walker’s solution to the call center was to privatize, naturally, hiring Impact, a private agency, and UW-Milwaukee to run the call center. The board, by contrast, wanted to hire more county staff to improve the response rate at the call center. Both sides argued over which approach was cheaper and better for the taxpayers. Meanwhile, as they wrangled interminably, neither side budging an inch, the poor continued to go hungry.

There is no place more partisan than the state Capitol, and yet after all the political posturing is over, the Republicans and Democrats hammer out some kind of compromise. When, if ever, have Walker and the board met each other halfway?

The only thing Walker and the board could agree on was that the state shouldn’t take over the program. Walker opposed this because it makes him looks bad as he plans his run for governor. The board opposes this because the more programs the state takes over, the less reason for the board’s existence.

Has the state contributed to the problem by underfunding the county’s public assistance program? Probably, but every government is fighting for funding. And both Walker and the board clearly felt the program could be improved; they just refused to compromise on their solution.

Will this help Doyle should he run for re-election against Walker? Possibly, though most voters outside Milwaukee probably won’t care one way or the other.

But Doyle’s decision is certainly defensible from a policy perspective. Like all counties, Milwaukee’s operates as administrative arm of the state. Ultimately, the state bears legal responsibility for these programs. Just under 94 percent of the money to run Milwaukee County’s $51.4 million public assistance program comes from federal and state funding. The state has fined and warned the county to improve, and is under pressure from the federal government to significantly reduce the program’s errors. And county officials have responded by bickering and doing nothing.

Walker contends the Doyle administration has proposed an approach that is “the worst of scenarios.” Given that the county is currently failing to answer 95 percent of phone calls, how much worse could things get?

Archbishop Dolan’s Spin Control

(Revised February 17)

A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story reported the good news from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee that it was more than halfway to the goal of its $105 million capital campaign. “People have been remarkably generous,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan declared.

But maybe the news isn’t as good as it sounds.

The campaign has raised $57.5 million, but that’s in pledges. Only $18 million of that was cash, the archdiocese tells me. Given the economic meltdown, the remaining $39.5 million in pledges could get hard to collect.

The archdiocese admitted to reporter Annysa Johnson that the level of participation by parishes was often weak, ranging from 7 percent to 56 percent of parishioners giving to the fund. But there’s reason to think it might get worse – if parishioners believe they are simply paying off legal claims related to sexually abusive priests.

Last August, the archdiocese suffered a major legal blow. A Milwaukee judge ruled that the archdiocese’s insurance company would not be liable for any monetary settlement of lawsuits by five different claimants alleging sexual abuse by clergy, because they involved fraud by the archdiocese. Victims who sued the archdiocese argued it committed fraud by knowingly assigning priests with histories of abuse to parishes without alerting parishioners.

This ruling could leave the archdiocese paying off millions in legal settlements all by itself. In the last settlement to victims of clergy abuse, the price tag was $16.5 million, but half of it was paid by the insurance company. Even so, the archdiocese had to take out a $4.6 million loan to help cover its half of the payments and is paying $360,000 in interest per year on this, the archdiocese told the press. It hopes to pay off that loan once the Cousins Center property is sold.

All this bad news came out a year after the capital campaign was announced. It might just sour potential donors. What assurance do they have their money isn’t going to pay off the legal claims?

When the campaign was first announced, Dolan assured the community that none of the money would be used to pay off abuse claims, and all money collected would be placed in the “Faith in Our Future” charitable trust, a separate legal entity outside the assets of the archdiocese. This trust would be overseen by five volunteer trustees.

And who were these trustees? Three of the five were bishops, including Dolan and his two auxiliary bishops: Richard Sklba, who former Archbishop Rembert Weakland once said was his “main go-to guy” on abuse cases, and William P. Callahan. That doesn’t sound so independent of the archdiocese.

But Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the archdiocese, says the trust’s board was changed last August, and added two more lay board members. This leaves the bishops in the minority on the board, but this change came a year after the capital campaign was launched.

Topczewski also says there is no way under case law that the money raised for this separate entity can be used by the archdiocese for sexual abuse claims. But what if the archdiocese went bankrupt? Could abuse victims go to court to claim the money that, after all, was raised by the archdiocese?  

It’s a messy situation for an organization that already faces huge challenges. As I reported in a prior column, the number of Catholics regularly attending Mass dropped from 270,000 to 165,000 over the last 10 years. This alone makes a $105 million drive a difficult undertaking, but if the parishioners that are left begin to ask the hard questions I’ve posed here, the task could become all the tougher.

The Buzz

-I erred last week in saying One Wisconsin Now board member Stephanie Bloomingdale is based in Madison. She lives in Milwaukee.

-The announcement that UW-Madison will spend $200 to $300 million to convert a heating plant to burn biomass (cornstalks, wood chips and switchgrass) instead of coal is good news for the environment, but inquiring minds wonder: Will the annual costs for biomass be more or less than for burning coal?

-JS reporter Alan Borsuk’s story noting possible local candidates for Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent left off a strong contender: Tom McGinnity. The subject of a 1989 feature story by Milwaukee Magazine, McGinnity was considered something of a miracle worker as principal of Garfield School. He actually served as MPS deputy superintendent in the late 1990s, and now runs the Milwaukee Teacher Education Center. I’m told he’d be interested in the position. He certainly knows the system, and might have the confidence of many teachers.

-A-Rod or A-Roid? And is Bud Selig a pimp? The Sports Nut considers.