Organizers who spent the past year putting together the Local Indicators for Excellence (LIFE) report presented their findings to the public Friday, Sept. 21, at the Theater@1800 in Stevens Point, highlighting five items that need “calls to attention.”
Kathy Davies, LIFE Steering Committee chair, said the report’s comprehensive overview of the quality of life in Portage County shows people in the county need to address rising unemployment rates, high drug and alcohol abuse and misuse rates, an academic achievement gap that is putting certain students at risk of failing, a rapidly growing aging population, and high obesity rates that could cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the near future.
Before addressing the county’s weaknesses, Davies said Portage County has many strengths. “We have a community in which our residents feel safe,” she said. “We have an evolving, creative community with an abundance of arts and cultural additions. We have a diversified economic base with an infrastructure to support future growth. We have high quality K-12 schools that provide a strong foundation and we have UWSP and MSTC colleges that encourage lifelong learning. We have high quality accessible health care, and abundance of outdoor recreational activities and sporting events, a wealth of natural resources, and generous residents. The list goes on and on.”
Davies and other members of the committee kept the five calls to action in the 95-page report secret prior to the presentation. “We’ve kept these a secret and tried to keep a sense of surprise about the calls to action,” she said. “The truth is the five calls to action will truly not be astounding new revelations for many of us.”
She said it’s important to remember that the purpose of this LIFE report is to not look nice sitting on a shelf, collecting dust until the next report is stacked next to it. “The purpose of the community calls to action is to identify these issues as important in our community, and to recognize and acknowledge at a community level that they require continued attention, collaborative action and advocacy on the part of all of us,” said Davies. “It is important to also recognize that each of these five calls to action there are already people and organizations engaged to address these issues.”
During five presentations on each of the calls to action, presenters identified the problems each issue cause for the community and ways those issues can be addressed.
Employment Opportunities that Generate Living Wages and Benefits
Problem: Dave McHone, Portage County Business Council Board president, said the LIFE report survey indicated jobs and income are the No. 1 community issue for Portage County residents. He said changes in the paper industry and changes at the state level that have affected local educational systems, and an ongoing national health care debate creating challenges for providers have created some employment problems.
McHone said statistics indicate Portage County is better off than most others in terms of being affected by the recession, but noted that doesn’t mean much. “Economic data from 2005 to the present indicate Portage County has fared mostly better than the state and the nation in this challenging time; however, that’s like saying my neighbor lost 100 percent of his crop last night in the storm, but I was lucky because I only lost 90 percent of mine,” he said.
And for people without jobs, he said this fact doesn’t matter. “Citizens of Portage County, specifically those who are struggling, paint a different picture,” said McHone. “They would tell you about the daily challenges to keep up with the rising cost of food, clothing and services. Thoroughly discouraged by recent events out of their control, some employees would tell you they’ve given up seeking employment and in turn are relying more and more on local service agencies to help them out.”
He said unemployment in the county has risen from 4.7 percent in 2005 to 6.6 percent in 2011, while per capita income is $2,000 less than the state and $3,000 less than the national averages.
The percentage of county residents living at poverty level was 11.6 percent in 2011, up from 7.8 percent a decade earlier. “This is call for great concern,” said McHone, noting 36 percent of students in Portage County are eligible for free or reduced price meals, up from 21 percent in 2001.
“It is critical to understand that our community has not been exempt from the challenges of the past few years and that far too many of us are struggling to make ends meet,” said McHone. “We believe there is a direct correlation between the state of our community’s economic condition and the impetus for some of the other calls to action.”
Ways to address this issue: McHone said the Portage County leaders and the business community must work together. “We must look outside our community and see what others are doing to retain their businesses and attract new industries,” he said, noting other communities are focusing on a “one-team approach.”
“We need a synergy that works together with one clear voice joining together as a group to present a strong community,” he said.
He said the Portage County Business Council is working with the county to develop a Portage County Economic Development Corporation. He said leaders are needed to come together to build economic growth. “We owe it to our families, our neighbors and our community to step up to the plate and make a difference,” said McHone.
Alcohol/Drug Abuse and Misuse
Problem: Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder showed headlines of alcohol-related car crashes and a drowning that occurred in 2012 to illustrate the problem of alcohol and drug abuse and misuse. “My call to action speaks for itself,” he said pointing to the headlines. “These are calls to action. These are why we are here.”
Ruder said alcohol usage in Portage County has been higher than the state and national average for the past 10 years. “There’s a reason the city’s taxpayers have been paying thousands of dollars in overtime to handle Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “Binge drinking from college-age students leads to fights and vandalism. Law enforcement on a daily basis deals with abuses when it comes to alcohol.”
Six out of the eight traffic fatalities this year in Portage County have been alcohol related, including an accident that claimed three lives in the town of Linwood.
Ruder said there has been a 37-percent increase in the number of people charged with drug offenses. “It’s hard to believe we’re talking about this, but heroin has spiked in Portage County, as it has throughout the state,” he said, noting prescription drug addicts are moving on to heroin addictions.
Ways to address this issue: Ruder said more resources are needed to educate people on the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse and misuse. He said groups need to be involved to spread this message.
He said some groups have already gotten involved in doing this. The city of Stevens Point has partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to form a Bing Drinking Task Force, and the AODA Coalition works on a number of projects such as compliance checks to promote a better culture.
“We need a culture change related to the use of alcohol,” said Ruder. “This isn’t a rites of passage. It’s not a rites of passage we want to see.”
He said the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse can affect an entire community, and that tougher laws are needed.
Ruder said these can’t be open words the community doesn’t address. “The tragedies we have seen and experienced this past year will never fade in the lives and hearts of families impacted. Let’s not let it fade in ours.”
Academic Achievement Gap
Problem: Julie Kolarik, a teacher at Ben Franklin Junior High School in Stevens Point, said the academic achievement gap refers to the disparity in the academic performance between certain groups of kids. “Quite simply it is one of the most serious problems our youth faces today,” she said, noting four out of 10 students in Portage County live in poverty.
Those students, said Kolarik, score poorly on tests, have lower graduation rates and are often employed in lower paying jobs.
Statistics show that economically disadvantaged youth in Portage County score approximately 13 percent lower than their counterparts.
She said income status is not the only indicator of poor academic scores, as different ethnicities are more likely to score lower on state tests. “Students with racially diverse backgrounds score 15 percent less than others,” said Kolarik.
Jon Vollendorf, director of secondary education for the Stevens Point Area School District, said state statistics show an obvious disparity relative to ethnicity, but the county’s rates are better. “However, one of the things we as a community need to pull together on is that these numbers are not going to be good enough until they are 100 percent,” he said. We need to ensure all students graduate from high school on time and are college or career ready.”
Mary Jo Lechner, director of elementary education for the Stevens Point Area School District, said children who read well in early years are far more successful later. “Those who fall behind stay behind,” she said. “They are more likely to drop out of school and be limited to low-paying jobs the rest of their lives.
“There is no doubt that reading is fundamental in functioning well in school, in life and in society,” said Lechner.
Ways to address this issue: Lechner said the county has many community partnerships to promote reading and literacy.
Kolarik said there are no easy solutions to bridging this gap. “The fact is disadvantaged youth already come to the K-12 education system already behind their peers,” she said. “This widening gap as the kids continue through school suggests that minorities and low income students will remain in poverty. It will take many resources and many programs to bridge that gap.”
She encouraged groups already supporting programs and partnerships to continue their mission and urged others to join them.
Problem: Sue Martens, Portage County Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC) Caregiver Support Services director, said the aging population is growing rapidly. “Baby boomers who are now 48 to 66 years old are going to be 71 to 89 years old by 2035,” she said. “For the next 20 years 8,000 Americans per day will be turning 65.”
In addition, she said the number of younger people to care for this growing aging population is smaller.
Another issue the aging population creates is added stress to caregivers, as 75 to 80 percent of home care is provided by family members, the majority of whom are 35 to 64 years old and employed at least part-time. Martens said those providing this service are more likely to have health issues.
Elder abuse is another issue facing the aging population. Portage County has had a 91.7 percent increase in elder abuse cases from 2007 to 2011, an increase partly attributed to more education and awareness about the issue is leading more people to report cases. “It’s always been there, people are reporting it more often now,” said Martens.
Ways to address this issue: Martens said people need to be proactive in addressing the needs of those things we can be prepared for.
She said the ADRC implemented a Caregiver Support Services division last year whose purpose is to make sure the needs of caregivers are met. This is done by allowing caregivers to get away, and by providing more counseling, training and financial assistance.
The ADRC is also working on enhancing communication and enhancing services before crisis situations occur. She said a Caregiver Coalition allows caregivers to know seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in this area and it can be very overwhelming,” said Martens. “The state and county recognize the growing need.” She said Portage County is writing a competitive grant for a dementia care specialist who would coordinate services for dementia patients with families and physicians.
Martens said there is also a big push for evidence-based programs for caregivers and patients.
Problem: Suzanne Oehlke, Portage County Health and Human Services nutritionist, said two controlling principles underline why obesity gets a call to action: the LIFE report survey which indicated 67.1 percent of respondents said is a concern in the community and the report’s key stakeholder survey which ranked obesity as one of the top three issues on which the community can make progress in the next three years.
“Obesity leads to chronic diseases that decrease the quality of life,” said Oehlke. “It’s staggering when we really reflect on the information that is coming to us at this time… if we fail to harness current trends by 2030, 42 percent of our adults will be obese.” She said this would increase medical costs to the nation by $550 billion annually.
She said these numbers are probably accurate, as she remembers sitting in on a meeting in the mid-1990s that predicated obesity rates would be 30 percent by 2015. “That’s where we are at right now,” she said, noting in 2010 no states had less than 20 percent obesity rates and 13 states have rates higher than 30 percent.
Ways to address this issue: Strategies for preventing obesity including promoting breast feeding; increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables; decreasing consumption of dense foods and sugars, sweets and beverages; and increasing physical activity. “These aren’t that new to us, but they are very real,” said Oehlke. “These elements can stand alone as being impactful but when we partner them and implement them together they can have a heightened impact.”
She said people need to ingrain better habits into their daily routine; organizations such as schools and volunteer groups need to encourage more physical activity; and that more legislation, school wellness programs, media campaigns, and partnerships to strengthen the approach to address obesity are needed.
The United Way of Portage County teamed up with Ministry Health Care, CAP Services and Portage County Health and Human Services beginning in June 2011 to put together the report. Davies said that by joining together, all four organizations were able to work together on a community assessment each organization was required to do anyway, allowing them to share resources and conduct in a way that wouldn’t net separate results.
The 60-member Steering Committee was divided into six subcommittees that looked at family issues, health, public safety, environment and transportation, education, and the economy.
The report gathers data from 70 different topic areas, and also compiles surveys of low-income families, 500 randomly sent-out surveys to community members, and surveys of 50 key community leaders in the county.
Kathy Davies said addressing these five calls to action is not simple. “We can start thinking about where we each place our efforts to address one or more of these calls to action,” she said.
She said people interested in working with Steering Committee members on these calls of duty should call United Way of Portage County at 715-341-6740 or visit the website at www.unitedwaypoco.org. A downloadable version of the entire report is also available at this website.