A Milwaukee County Sheriff vehicle parked below a bridge being crossed my protesters. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The future direction of Milwaukee County’s budget weighed heavily on the minds of residents who spoke during a public hearing with the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night. County residents gathered both in person and virtually for the meeting, which offered the public a chance to weigh in on the proposed 2023 county budget.
Although a $12.6 million gap in the budget was closed using funds made available through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), tough decisions now loom. The pandemic-era federal care package amounted to $183 million through ARPA, and another $77 million through the CARES Act. For some county services which have been under-funded for years, the federal money served as temporary life support.
“The federal dollars we have received to combat the pandemic, meet essential workers’ needs, and reclaim lost revenue were helpful to respond to the immediate needs of our community during the public health emergency,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said in a statement. “However, those dollars were one-time funds that were not enough to match the scale of our pandemic-related revenue loss — let alone the scale of our structural deficit.” Crowley noted that nearly 80% of the ARPA funds, “have already been allocated to address revenue loss, community support, and COVID-19 mitigation.”
In 2019, Milwaukee County declared racism a public health emergency. According to a more than 500 page document detailing the 2023 budget, investments meant to boost racial equity are distributed among various programs. One such program is Credible Messengers, which would receive a $1.7 million appropriation for advocacy, mentoring, emotional first aid, community engagement and violence mediation for youth involved in the criminal justice system. “This amount represents an approximate $500,000 increase compared to 2022,” according to the budget document, which states that a portion of the funding is being provided through a three-year Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) grant. The county’s Office of Equity has also been slated for a budget increase from $946,876 in 2022 to $1,072,937 next year
Still, concerns expressed by some residents during Tuesday’s budget hearing point to areas of dysfunction within the county. One resident, Tiffany Stark, highlighted staffing shortages in Milwaukee’s mental health system. The county’s Behavioral Health Services Division, according to a budget summary, may expect a budget decrease from over $248 million in 2022 to just over $235 million in 2023. Stark fears that many local residents are essentially misled into thinking there are mental health services available when there aren’t.
Public transit cuts worry disabled residents
Many residents, including several with disabilities, also feared for the future of public transit and taxi services. By next May, when the contract ends, the county will discontinue its taxi program due to budget constraints. According to the budget document, the number of taxi riders increased from 275,019 in 2020 to 293,858 last year. The target number of taxi riders for this year was nearly 500,000. Kevin Meyers, a disabled resident with the organization Independence First, stressed that the taxi service is crucial for him and many others.
“I personally feel that using that cab service has allowed me to be successful and experience life, like many other people that don’t have a disability,” said Meyers, who is blind. Other disabled residents were moved to tears during their testimony. Eric Lohman, another county resident who spoke Tuesday night, said, “I want you to imagine for a second that you have some kind of physical disability, and the county board for your local government tells you that they’re cutting funding that makes it possible for you to exist in this society,” said Lohman. “And worse than that, you’re going to give a $1.5 million increase to the budget of the sheriff’s office.”
The county’s Department of Transportation, as a whole, will see its budget cut by just over $4 million from this year to next. Direct revenues generated by the department, however, increased from just over $140 million in 2020 to over $143 million in 2021. This year the total revenues, according to a budget summary, are expected to be $156 million.
The county has seen a 3% increase in expenditures by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), according to the budget document. Largely due to a $3 pay increase to incentivize correctional officer positions within the Community Reintegration Center and the sheriff’s office, the raise was temporary in the 2022 budget. Next year, it will be made permanent to help combat vacancy rates and high turnover for correctional officers.
The reintegration center will see expenditures increase by about 6.3% to accommodate for correctional officer pay increases, increasing medical costs, improving food quality, and re-branding the House of Correction as the Community Reintegration Center. Pretrial services, however, will decrease by about 7%, and the Transit Division by 2.5%. Behavioral Health Services will be cut by about 5.3%, and the Election Commission by 33.8%. The Office of Equity and Office of Government Affairs saw some of the largest increases at 13.3% and 35.2% respectively.
County resident Missy Zombor told the board, “There’s quite a mess to fix if we’re going to keep Milwaukee moving forward, and our economy moving forward.” Zombor added, “This budget looks to me like the county wants to spend more money locking people up than it does getting people to work and school. So let’s talk about what needs to be fixed.” Zombor called the transit system “the economic backbone of this region.” Yet, Zombor said, “We are so short drivers that we have routes that don’t go out every single day leaving workers, students and the elderly and disabled stranded. This budget needs to honor our transit heroes with wages and benefits to keep up with inflation.”
Amy Mizialko, a county resident and member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, stressed that preserving public transit should be part of the county’s racial equity agenda. “Many transit workers are Black,” she said, “many transit riders are Black. Investing in public transit is investing in Black workers. Investing in communities of color that have a right to safe and reliable public transit, that is racial equity.” Mizialko also pointed to short staffing throughout the transit system leading to dysfunction and burnout.
Over 60 budget amendments were deliberated by the county board’s finance committee in late October. Sup. Ryan Clancy sponsored 30 amendments, the majority of which sought to move money away from the sheriff’s office and towards other county services. Clancy has been a vocal critic of budget increases and lack of transparency within the sheriff’s office. Among the examples Clancy gave during finance committee meetings in late October was the office’s drone program. The program was started in the middle of the county’s budget woes, without board approval.
“We are hemorrhaging money in the sheriff’s office,” said José Guerero, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, during Tuesday night’s hearing. “We need all these public services because what are we doing as a society, if we can’t provide for the people that actually use these services and want these services?” Guerero added, “We are the ones paying for all of this. And when you guys don’t listen to anything that we’re saying, and still choose to do these things that go against all of your constituents’ beliefs and values, what are you guys doing? We need to change something.”
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