The struggle over the future of Milwaukee County’s 2021 budget

By: - November 13, 2020 6:45 am
A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed my protesters. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed my protesters. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Milwaukee County 2021 budget was signed on Thursday by Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, yet a debate continues over what direction the budget should take in the future. The central problem before county supervisors is the $42.5 million budget gap for this year, which was created due to the pandemic. The county board faced difficult  choices about what services to cut in order to close the gap, while also working to address racial equity issues in Milwaukee County.

Supv. Ryan Clancy (Dist. 4) pushed for downsizing the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department budget and re-allocating the funds towards human services. It was a policy move inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, which sprang into the streets on May 29 in Milwaukee and are still continuing. None of the amendments Clancy introduced to defund the sheriff’s office, however, made it into the final adopted budget.

County supervisor Ryan Clancy, District 4 (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
County supervisor Ryan Clancy, District 4 (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“I was really struck by the incredibly wide gap between the public and the supervisors on this,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “Every public hearing that supervisors have had on the budget, the issue of getting funds away from the sheriff and towards human needs has been front and center. And yet the supervisors feel that the public’s perception both there, and in emails, and in the county’s own balancing act tool — where only 25% of people said they wanted to fund services with debt and 70% said they wanted to fund it by taking funding away from the sheriff —doesn’t reflect the way they voted.”

The balancing act tool was created by the county in order to allow the public an opportunity to help balance the budget. Interactive and brief — it takes  only 15 minutes to complete — officials hoped the tool would provide them with critical feedback needed to responsibly shape the budget. “We did not get into this financial situation overnight,” the website that houses the tool states. “In fact, over the past decade, Milwaukee County has steadily increased the amount of revenue we sent to the state, while the state aids we receive in return have remained flat or declined. During this time, we have worked hard to reduce our footprint, streamline our operations and save millions of taxpayer dollars, while continuing to better serve our residents.”

Nevertheless, some of that input doesn’t appear to have translated into the final adopted budget. Clancy is worried that Milwaukee County is embarking on a questionable future for its human services. “What that means is next year, things are going to be even more dire,” the supervisor explained. “And we’re going to be talking about which bus routes to cut, which parks to abandon, and how many people we’re OK with sleeping out on the street because we didn’t have that important conversation about priorities this year. I think that’s what’s the most frustrating thing to me, because we kicked this can down the road.”

When the budget adoption was first announced on Nov. 10, the board highlighted particular points that it seemed proud of. Nearly $2.5 million was invested in county parks, cultural amenities, services for youth justice system-involved youth and senior citizens, combating homelessness and the county’s federated library system among other priorities. The board also approved plans to explore transitioning the county’s fleet of vehicles to electric rather than gasoline power, as well as efforts to streamline the efficiency of county procurement, payroll, financial, and other services.

Among the amendments which made it into the budget were several more pertaining to the parks. A prohibition on mid-year fee increases in county parks, restoration of a baseball field at Manitoba Park, supplements for seasonal staffing needs, and an advance initiative to propagate hemp plant clones at the Mitchell Park Domes greenhouses, to name a few.


Racial justice and equity also formed the bedrock for amendments introduced by various supervisors. County Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson (Dist. 5), Supv. Jason Haas (Dist. 14), Supv. Sequanna Taylor (Dist.1) and others also drafted racial equity and justice amendments which made it into the budget. These include encouraging the Wisconsin Counties Association to adopt racial equity principals and allowing the families of youth in the justice system access to programs designed to help them connect with educational and employment opportunities  upon release. Yet another, which was introduced by Clancy, seeks to analyze the possibility of establishing a “right to counsel” program to provide legal counsel for persons facing eviction or foreclosure.

“This budget is the first in Milwaukee County history to be guided by a plan for achieving racial equity and improving the health of all Milwaukee County residents,” said Nicholson. “Supervisors adopted numerous amendments that built upon County Executive David Crowley’s foundational and historic budget by boosting efforts to achieve racial equity and serve our most vulnerable neighbors, especially those affected by the pandemic.”

Supv. Taylor also applauded the board’s moves to prioritize access to behavioral health services. “I look forward to building a relationship with the Behavior Health Division that will enhance the service we are able to give our constituents in Milwaukee County,” said Taylor. Clancy also was instrumental in the county declaring a right to shelter as a measure to stimulate funding and efforts to fight homelessness. Still, Clancy feels opportunities were missed, with the sheriff’s office budget and its activities remaining an elephant in the room. Even with the various amendments which were included in the budget, “we’re going to have to make some pretty drastic cuts,” Clancy warns.

Three amendments were thrown out which would have increased funding for homeless outreach. “We said on Thursday that everybody had a right to shelter, and several days later we didn’t back that up by funding shelter,” said Clancy. “And that’s disappointing.” When moving to defund the sheriff’s office, Clancy took particular focus on the amount of overtime funding it receives, as well as activities that  branch into policing, and which he believes the sheriff does not need to do.

“It’s far easier not to have tough discussions about defunding any department,” said Clancy. “But it’s also really fiscally irresponsible to kick this down the road. And part of it is, it’s easier to not engage with do we fund this or that, but that’s ultimately what it comes down to. So, Milwaukee County can’t invent new taxes. There’s really very little we can do to bring in more money. So every dollar that we give to the sheriff’s office is taking away from other priorities.”

Unlike many police departments, the sheriff’s office is endowed with specific responsibilities by the state constitution. Overseeing the courthouse, the jail and patrolling county highways are among the responsibilities which are considerably lightened in 2020 due to the pandemic. “There are few people in the jail, we’re running two-thirds capacity,” noted Clancy. “There was almost no one in the courthouse for many months, and it’s still way below capacity. And their own numbers say, ‘Yeah we didn’t use as much overtime.’ But then they invent all this other work to do, and part of that is this overly broad policing the whole county, including going after peaceful protesters.”

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has participated in numerous protest-related actions over the summer and into the fall. Deputies are always on alert when large marches are happening near the highways, and have conducted arrests on the highway of protesters as recently as Oct. 7. Deputies have also supported the Wauwatosa Police Department in its own responses against the protesters, both on July 7 when protesters occupied a local restaurant and in mid-October when Wauwatosa was placed under curfew.

“If the sheriff is going to act like overly aggressive police, then they’re going to be defunded like the police,” said Clancy. “That’s what the public has been asking for. So all I was asking is we help the sheriff downsize, and focus on their core duties. There’s no reason for sheriffs to be showing up at peaceful protests. We already have [Milwaukee Police Department] and Tosa, and all these other municipalities already do that. So it’s not the sheriff’s place, it’s not mandated by the state and that’s what we’re asking them to stop doing.”

At the end of the day, the budget is a reflection of  the county’s priorities. Particularly in times when revenue is low, budgets are tight, and tough decisions approach, “I hope that our supervisors can reflect what the vast majority of people across the country believe,” said Clancy. “Our priorities are not police, and certainly the kind of overly broad policing that we’re trying to get the sheriff not to engage in. Our priorities are human needs.” Knowing the debate isn’t over, Clancy concedes, “I guess this is going to be a long slog and not a quick victory.”

But, he adds, “I’m in it for the long-haul.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.