Dane County Executive Joe Parisi released the 2023 county budget in January, setting funding levels for various local projects through the year.
Parisi has served as Dane County Executive since 2011. He previously served as a representative in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 2005 to 2011 and as Dane County clerk from 1996 to 2004.
Parisi sat down with The Daily Cardinal to talk about the county’s priorities for 2023, including funding for food assistance, renewable energy projects and mental health services.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
At the end of February, additional federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits sunsetted in Wisconsin. Has that created a problem in addressing food insecurity in Dane County?
Right now we’re facing, for many people in our community and beyond, greater food insecurity than even during the pandemic. We’re still seeing the impacts of the pandemic, and then you add inflation to that, and a lot of people are just getting priced out of the ability to feed their families.
During the pandemic, when supply chains started falling apart for farmers and growers and people started losing their jobs, we invested a big chunk of dollars into a partnership with local farmers and Second Harvest Food Bank. We connected the two of them and invested millions of dollars to create a program through which local farmers and growers could supply the food bank that supplies the food pantries. It helped solidify those supply chains to make sure that the food pantries could get food. It also provided a market for our local farmers and growers when their supply chains were falling apart, and they all of a sudden had no one to sell their goods to.
The last couple of months, I’ve been stopping by a few local food pantries, and most of them are telling me that demand now — even before SNAP ended — is as high or higher than it was during the pandemic. We’re certainly stepping up what we’re able to do, but as a county, we’re only able to do so much.
What can the county do to help alleviate some of the shortfalls?
It really needs to be all hands on deck. We were very good [in] the county about putting programming together and making sure that the federal dollars that were made available got to the people who needed them the most.
But, the fact is our funding base is nothing compared to what the federal government has. I’m disappointed that the federal government couldn’t at least extend the SNAP benefits. These are dollars that people really need. Families need these, so we’ll continue to have a huge social services budget in Dane County.
We spend the largest percentage of our budget on social services of any county in the state, and we try to be as generous as possible with those dollars, but there are only so many of those dollars. We’ll continue to have a lot of programs that work with people who are facing poverty programs to help people stay in housing, but it’s going to be hard.
Talk a little bit about the county’s goal to rely 100% on renewable energy. What steps are the county taking to achieve this goal?
We partnered with the University [of Wisconsin-Madison], and we asked them to do a study to let us know how climate change would impact us locally. What they told us is what we’ve been seeing come true the last few years: we’re going to have warmer and wetter winters, more 90-degree-plus days in the summer and, most impactful to us locally, much more intense rain events.
First of all, we looked at each one of our different departments and asked them how climate change would impact their operations. For example, in the highway department, they’ve had to change how they engineer some roads, they’ve had to change the size of culverts to handle more water.
We set a goal: by 2025, we would offset 100% of the electricity used in Dane County government buildings. First, we looked at all of our buildings and started putting about $2 million annually into energy efficiency upgrades. That’s the biggest return for your dollar. Once we did that, we started assessing all of our properties for their ability to accept solar [installations]. As of today, we have 17 operational solar installations.
In a few weeks, we’re going to be flipping the switch on our latest solar field, which is twice as big as the one at the airport. It will have 33,000 solar panels, and it’s out by our landfill. When that goes online, we will have achieved — two years early — our goal of offsetting 100% of the electricity we use in the county government with renewable power. We know that this is what the community wants, it’s what the planet needs and we’re just as excited to be an example to show other folks that they can do it too.
What aspects of the initiative do you think could serve as an example for other counties?
It’s really easy to increase energy efficiency, especially if you have older buildings. Solar power is inexpensive — you will usually save money on your electric bill. Really, it’s fiscally irresponsible not to do renewables and [energy] efficiency. Now, with the [Inflation Reduction Act], there are many, many more incentives available for folks than there ever were before.
One of the unique things that we’ve done — and this isn’t generating electricity, [it’s] part of our carbon sequestration effort — we own a landfill, and a lot of counties and municipalities run landfills. Landfills produce methane gas, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Instead of just flaring it off, we built a facility that extracts the gas the landfill generates, and we clean it, compress it and turn it into renewable natural gas used as transportation fuel.
We have about 100 county vehicles running on that now. These big trucks that plow snow, that get eight miles a gallon and burn diesel — half of those now have been converted to clean burning renewable natural gas, which is cheaper than diesel and very clean compared to diesel. There are a lot of things like that that other folks could adopt, so we really work to share that know-how with other people.
I did want to touch on the announced refurbishing of the Huber Jail Center. It’s going to become a mental health [triage] center, as it’s no longer in use?
It was for people who were sentenced but could go out during the day to work or for school, but they would come back and have to stay there at night. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. If someone’s safe enough to let go to work, they’re probably safe enough to let sleep at home that night. All of those folks have been put out on electronic bracelets and do electronic monitoring, so that freed up that facility.
Around the same time, we started looking at developing a crisis triage center for the next phase in our efforts to help people with mental health challenges. There's some crisis infrastructure, but we really want one place that everyone knows is there. [It] can be the first stop for someone who self presents. For law enforcement, when someone is maybe having a mental health crisis, they don’t want to take them to jail but [instead] a more appropriate place for them to be assessed.
Do you think the county should prioritize solutions to mental health crises that don’t involve arrest or incarceration?
Absolutely. Many people, for lack of resources and sometimes lack of understanding, end up in jail because of a mental health crisis that could have been potentially averted. We have more available mental health workers to respond to calls that come into 911, either instead of law enforcement or with them, if needed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we opened a new facility called the Behavioral Health Resource Center. It’s kind of a one-stop shop for people to call when they don’t know where to turn. It’s not a triage center where someone presents and they’re taken care of. [Instead], we’ve coordinated all of the providers who provide mental health services in the community — the healthcare providers, the nonprofits — and we have county staff staffing this facility either by phone, or people can walk in.
We’ve also invested in mental health services for young people. We have school-based mental health teams that we fund. We put two-person mental health teams in middle schools, because that’s the feedback we got where the services were needed most. They’re available for young people in need to supplement what the schools are able to give because schools don’t always have adequate resources for this.
Recently, you urged the Board of Supervisors to pass the resolution for the Dane County Jail Project. Why has that project been met with delays?
Building a jail can be controversial. The County Board has gone back and forth on this, and accepted and denied a number of different proposals. There have been some proposals I agreed with and some I didn't. It's unfortunate that we have to invest in a jail, but what we're dealing with is a 70-year-old jail that’s been compared to Alcatraz.
When you look at the mental health piece of this, when people with mental health challenges are taken to that jail, if they have a crisis, they often end up being put in 70-year-old solitary confinement cells. I can’t think of a worse situation. One of the things we want to do with the newly consolidated jail is to have adequate programming space and space for special needs folks.
Some people have criticized the project. Why do you think it’s necessary to [go forward with] the consolidation?
We don’t have any other choices because we have an aging jail that’s falling apart. That’s dangerous. It does not conform to federal guidelines. It’s really a lawsuit or tragedy waiting to happen.
We have one of the lowest per capita jail populations in the nation. We do a lot of work on prevention, rehabilitation and diversion to get drug treatment or mental health treatment, but there are still going to be folks who are sentenced to jail, or they’re awaiting trials for serious crimes.
We have to have a jail, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to have a jail that treats people with dignity — a jail that is safe, a jail that allows us to help people address the core issues of why they’re there. Above all, it’s a public and personal safety issue. It’s one of those infrastructure projects that no one wants to do, but it’s part of our responsibility.
What do you think is the most important initiative the county is embarking on going into 2023?
Boy, the county does so much important work. I think the crisis triage center is extremely important, certainly on a local level.
On a bigger level, and in a different way, our climate work is crucial. Once we meet our electric offset, our next goal is to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Climate change is an existential issue, and nothing else we’re talking about matters if all of a sudden the planet no longer exists.
I have daughters in their 20s, and [they] are going to have to live on this planet for the next 60, 70, 80 years. We have a responsibility to stand with the [next generation] and fight for their right to have a healthy and livable planet. We can do a lot on the local level, not only with our direct emissions, but in inspiring others to action.
Francesca Pica is the city news editor for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she will serve as a news intern for The Capital Times throughout the summer of 2023.