How dire is the County’s future? Very much so, says forthcoming report

I find no joy in the possibility of the Milwaukee County government being forced to declare bankruptcy. That’s the prediction of a “super-secret report” by the Greater Milwaukee Committee that somehow was not so secret that an executive summary got into Dan Bice’s hands. It’s a testament to the effects of the old school politicking that led to the pension scandal as much as it is to the ineffectuality of the current county administrator. And even if it does point to that, I see no reason to gloat or say “told you so.” It’s a dire problem that we need to prevent if at all possible.

According to Bice’s column, the report summary states “Milwaukee [County] is facing unprecedented fiscal and structural challenges, including a growing cost of healthcare and pension benefits that is projected to take EVERY DOLLAR of the County’s property tax levy by 2016.”

It also lists the following as possible solutions to the problem. Again, quoting the article:

“Changing county government’s bottom line by scaling back its health care program for current and retired employees; requiring county workers to retire later and give more to the pension fund; reducing the number of supervisors and the amount they are paid; and selling off or leasing county properties.”

I have mixed feelings about those points. Would the furlough days implemented by the county exec still be in place when this occurs? By how much does that reduce the employees’ pay? Does that also impact their ability to be able to pay more into the healthcare system? (And if we had a single-payer system like every other modern, industrialized country on Earth, would this be a problem?)

“The draft plan also says county officials should consider dropping the elected county executive position in favor of creating a county administrator post that would be filled by a County Board appointee.”

I think we certainly need to somehow depoliticize the office. But how would the appointed county administrator be different from the elected county executive position? This would be a product of the elected board, which removes that person from being chosen by the will of the people. So I’m reluctant to support that. What would the appointed county administrator’s pay level be? Would the $50,000 pay raise that the county executive gave himself still be in effect?

Again, back to the article:

“Spinning off the parks, zoo, bus system and all recreational and cultural programs so they are run by separate authorities or commissions. The county could also deliver non-mandatory services via public-private arrangements or in conjunction with other local governments.”

Tread very carefully here. First, this is talking about taking at least four sections of the county government and splitting them off into independent groups that would each require their own systems of finance and administration. We already have an overwhelming number of small governments within the County, yet I hear nothing about reducing or changing the number of those. This would create at least four new quasi-governmental agencies. And some people claim to want less government.

The bus system could be removed from the county and put in the hands of a regional transit authority (RTA). However, the binary political system that dominates the area makes it difficult to get a resolution passed that would enact an effective RTA that would serve more than just Milwaukee County. What of Kenosha and Racine Counties RTAs?

A parks district has been discussed. I think the County Parks system worked has very well. The departure of huge portions of the tax base over the past half-century has impacted it, to say nothing of the past eight years of haphazard governance. County voters passed a park-and-transit-funding referendum in 2008, but the state legislature has yet to put that into effect. Implementing that would allow us to preserve the existing government infrastructure.

As for “non-mandatory services,” what are those? Are we talking about an “originalist” view of the county’s role? I don’t (want to) know what that would entail. I’m probably mixing metaphors here, but we would need to see substantial detailing of what exactly would be taken out of the government’s hands.

We have already lost a great deal of our local control of our government in the past few years as the state of Wisconsin has stepped in to operate county-administered agencies that were allowed to flounder. By attempting to starve local bodies to death, Walker’s dream “to eliminate the government entirely” did not succeed in eliminating government. In fact, it caused the state government to expand, to compensate for what he tried to kill off. I don’t think many people understand that that has occurred, or what it means.

There’s a lot to chew on. It will require deep thought. Are you up for that? If so, let’s get started.

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.

2 thoughts on “How dire is the County’s future? Very much so, says forthcoming report”

  1. So, no one is complaining about the destruction of the republican form of government. Let the oligarchy dictate or should it be King Walker?

  2. The fact is that the next County Exec (and future boards) are going to inherit a terrible mess. There’s no getting around that fact the the entire property tax levy will be chewed up by benefits/retirements in a few years.

    Spinning off some of the quality of life services would allow them to continue to service their individual core missions while allowing more resources to be directed at those “core” services which are mandated by the state (law enforcement, courts, social services). In the example of parks, most other metropolitan areas have moved to a parks district or allowed non-profits to manage their local parks. Pittsburgh, NYC, San Diego, St. Louis and others have had good success with that when faced with many of the same issues we’re facing now.

    Is everything the GMC proposing a great idea? Not at all. But something does need to be done in Milwaukee County, period. Blaming Scott Walker is an easy and somewhat appropriate response, but it doesn’t actually do anything to deal with the mounting issues we’re facing as a County.

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