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Budget proposal would expand mental health crisis team to more of Dane County

The CARES model allows non-police staff to respond to some emergencies

A gray minivan bearing a Community Alternative Response Emergency Services logo
Madison’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Services division is headquartered at Fire Station 3 downtown. A 2021 file photo shows a gray minivan with the CARES logo. Photo courtesy of the Madison Fire Department 

Local officials in south central Wisconsin are asking for funding to bring a crisis response team to more of Dane County.

Madison first launched its Community Alternative Response Emergency Services, or CARES, division in 2021 on a limited basis. Each CARES team includes a paramedic and a mental health professional, and the model allows staff other than police to respond to certain non-violent calls. It’s used for incidents like welfare checks, as well as when someone’s intoxicated or has thoughts of suicide.

“There are very many instances in which for lack of other resources, law enforcement is asked to respond to incidents, when really what people need is a mental health professional,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said.

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Parisi’s 2024 budget request includes $200,000 in grants for local communicates to develop their own mobile crisis teams, which would respond in-person to emergencies. It also includes $402,700 to hire four mental health counselors who would handle crisis calls remotely at the county’s 911 Center.

“Sometimes it might be the case that there’s an individual or a family that would rather not have an in-person response because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” Parisi said. “By being able to triage those calls and having some of them dealt with over the phone — if that’s a doable situation, that allows us to more effectively utilize the in-person teams we have and better serve more people who need in-person assistance.”

Parisi released his full spending plan on Monday. It includes a $787.6 million operating budget and $149.8 million proposal for capital projects. The county’s board of supervisors is set to vote on budget approval in early November.

Parisi plans to appoint a committee to review grant applications for crisis response team funding. He hopes new crisis workers can be hired in the early months of 2024, and says he views the initial expansion as a trial period that he hopes will lead to further investment.

“We’ll do this kind of as a pilot for the next couple of years to gather data to help us get us a much better data-informed observation about how many in-person CARES teams are needed, as we look to expand throughout the county,” Parisi said.

The Government Performance Lab at Harvard’s Kennedy School included Madison and Dane County in a 2023-24 cohort for analyzing how local communities can implement and expand unarmed emergency response teams.

Last month, Madison officials announced the city’s CARES team is now responding to calls on Saturdays and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Previously, the option had only been available on weekdays. Madison’s officials said last month the city’s CARES teams have responded to more than 3,200 calls for service since the program began roughly two years ago.