A little more than a year after the merger of three of the firms providing civil legal assistance to the poor in Wisconsin, the merged entity is suffering the effects of staff cuts in 2003, the consolidation of two of its offices and the impending closing of another office.
According to John Ebbott, executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., funding shortages and increasing costs are forcing the staff and office reductions and overshadowing the impact of the merger with Western Wisconsin Legal Services Inc. and Legal Services of Northeastern Wisconsin Inc.
Reduced funding from the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, combined with rising costs without matching increases in other funding sources, all add up to fewer advocates available to serve poor people, Ebbott said in an interview with the Wis-consin Law Journal last week.
Whether LSNeW or Western [Wisconsin Legal Services] stay independent or [are] a part of us is really not nearly as significant as these funding issues, Ebbott said. He added that increases in employee health insurance costs are especially compounding the financial crunch.
The merger became necessary after the Legal Services Corporation a federally funded agency that is a major funding source for many civil legal services providers reduced the number of service territories in Wisconsin, according to a statement by Ebbott that appeared in Wisconsin Lawyer in December 2002.
In the interview last week, Ebbott compared the merger, amid worsening funding shortages, to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
We were having to lose staff before the merger; that trend continued after the merger, Ebbott said. It really is rearranging the chairs, essentially.
As a result of financial strains, LAW merged its Kenosha and Racine offices, he said, and the Dodgeville office will close this year. The program has also cut a total of 14 full-time equivalent staff positions in 2003, according to Ebbott.
While rising health insurance costs are causing problems for many businesses, LAW does not have as many options when it comes to shifting costs to employees, Ebbott said. Currently, the program pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for its staff, he said.
From time to time we look at having some sort of cooperative payment, Ebbott said, but compared to other salaries, ours are so low that its pretty hard to figure out how our staff is going to be able to do that.
Bob Henderson, managing attorney of LAWs La Crosse office and formerly the interim director of Western Wisconsin Legal Services, agreed that funding is the organizations most urgent concern.
The structure, while its important, is less critical than figuring out a way to have adequate funding from year to year, so that youre not constantly in the cycle of laying staff off and hiring people on when you get another grant for 12 months or 18 months, he said. Its very disruptive to case services.
Closing the Dodgeville office will mean more administrative work, as staff members will need to redirect client intake in the area and notify courts and others of the office closing. The present plan is that three of the six counties now served by the Dodgeville office will be served through the Madison office, and the remaining three will be served through the La Crosse office, Henderson said. One of the two attorneys currently working in Dodgeville will go to LAWs Madison office, and another will leave the program, he said.
I dont think theres any way to sugarcoat it, he said. Closing the Dodgeville office is a significant loss for the service area. Obviously, with or without the merger, we wouldnt want to do that unless we had to.
Mike Dally, formerly the president of the LSNeW board and now a member of the LAW board, said that even prior to the merger, there was concern that funding from the Legal Services Corporation would be affected by the 2000 census results as to the areas poverty population.
We knew that the census would hit us hard, and that translated directly into a reduction of LSC funding, Dally said. But then the economic downturn has probably hit the blue-collar states like Wisconsin harder than other states so now were caught in a crunch where we have less funding based on the old census numbers, and more poor people with more legal problems.
Dally added that the situation is unlikely to improve, given the nations fiscal situation.
I havent seen the new budget thats been presented to Congress by the Bush administration, he said, [but] I suspect its going to be a bloody mess as it affects legal services programs in general and Wisconsin in particular.
Some potential benefits of the merger are beginning to appear, Ebbott said, such as the assistance the development director in Milwaukee has provided to the Western Wisconsin and Northeastern Wisconsin regions. That collaboration resulted in the award of a new grant that will provide the programs Oshkosh and Green Bay offices each another lawyer for two years, he said.
Karen Roehl, the managing attorney of the Oshkosh office, said that the grant will fund the positions for attorneys to assist clients with legal problems, other than eviction, associated with homelessness, and she added that she is hopeful that this grant will be renewed at the end of the two-year cycle.
Henderson said that another positive result of the merger has been access to staff in Milwaukee who can provide help with matters such as analyzing budgets, and Roehl noted that her office has received additional technology assistance since the merger.
But because of the contemporaneous funding losses and the energy spent on the merger, as well as the effort required since then to make operations more uniform within the program, it is too early to say whether the merger will ultimately achieve the objective of better delivery of legal services, Henderson said.
The long-run goal and the hope is that it will improve the situation, he said, but it wont happen without more funding.