Bird’s eye view of the recommended 2014 Milwaukee County budget process

The Milwaukee County Board is analyzing and modifying the Milwaukee County Executive’s Proposed 2014 Budget. Milwaukee County’s budget is approximately $1.3 Billion. This may seem like a large amount, and it is. From this sum, Milwaukee County pays for services ranging from Sheriff’s department, to the Courts system to the Gold Medal Award Winning County Parks System.

In recent years, Milwaukee County has faced great challenges in providing services while maintaining low taxes. This is due in part to the ongoing constriction of shared revenue from the state of Wisconsin as well as rising healthcare costs for our employees. Shared revenue is operational funding given to Milwaukee County from the State of Wisconsin. Counties are an extension of State Government, and therefore eligible for this funding.

These constrictions present a quandary. How do we determine which services are most important? Where do we make our cuts? How much can we ask our employees to contribute? The past several county boards have needed to make hard decision on how much should be cut, which have manifested themselves in reductions of service and reducing the benefits we afford our employees by forcing them to contribute ever-increasing amount to their own health insurance and pensions.

While the level of cuts has lessened to more popular services such as the Parks Dept. these budgets have included large cuts to the sheriff’s office and mental health services, as well as dramatic increases to employee cost contributions.

Our budgetary process begins with department heads submitting their requested budgets to both the County Board and the County Executive. The County Executive’s office prepares a recommended budget and submits it to the County Board for consideration. It is important to bear in mind that while each department submits its own budget request, the executive’s office is then free to make changes to it. It is reviewed by the Board’s analysts for a week, and a summary is prepared for Supervisors. After this, the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee begins its budget hearings. In the first phase, the Committee reviews the County’s Operational Budget. In this section Departmental budgets are heard first, with each county department director speaking to the Finance Committee about their department’s needs. After hearing from the Department heads, the Committee reviews the Capital Improvements Budget, which allocates money for improvements to County facilities. Last, after hearing the presentations from departments and reviewing the capital improvements, the committee considers amendments that Supervisors nominate to make changes to the budget.

The number of questions committee members ask of department heads seems directly proportional to the department’s complexity. For simpler departments, the questions may be short and simple. For example, the Finance Committee, which I am the Vice Chair of, didn’t have many for the UW-Extension, whereas the Health & Human Services hearing felt like an all-day affair due to its complexity. Another example of the complexities related to the budget process was in this year’s Parks Department budget: it came out under my questioning that the department had not requested the closures of Noyes and Pulaski indoor swimming pools.

I don’t yet know which route we’ll take in making changes to this year’s budget, but  I look forward to hearing from the residents of my district on what they feel are need to be preserved the most.

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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.