Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley featured at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley discussed the challenges the county faces at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon on Tuesday. From difficult budget decisions to negotiating with the Republican-controlled Legislature to creating new revenue sources and crafting affordable housing policies, Crowley covered a plethora of problems and solutions. “We’re building this plane as we fly it,” Crowley said during the luncheon adding, “we have a vision for more.”
Growing up, Crowley experienced housing insecurity. His family moved frequently and worried about eviction. He knew what it was like to have loved ones struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues. During Tuesday’s press club luncheon Crowley said his own work “has been really rooted in my experiences living in the city of Milwaukee.”
“Many of the negative outcomes that we continue to see in this community are what drive me in doing the work that we have been doing for the past few years.”
When Crowley was sworn in as county executive in May 2020, he became both the first African American to serve in that office and also the youngest. A year before, the county had declared racism a public health emergency, formally acknowledging the role systemic inequality plays in county residents’ struggles. Crowley recently gave a TEDx Talk, where he highlighted that in Milwaukee “a white person in our community, on average, will live 14 years longer than a Black person in our community.” Milwaukee is among the most segregated cities in the U.S..
Steering Milwaukee County in a different direction is a long-term ambition for Crowley. He has been exploring ways to reform the county’s incarceration system. One strategy is developing around the Community Reintegration Center (CRC), formerly known as the House of Correction. Although the facility has been renamed, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has declined to fund things like new signs and uniforms with the center’s new name.
Crowley remains undeterred, and explained at the press club how renaming the facility is part of the process of reimagining its function in the community. “We are reimagining, you know, what’s supposed to happen with individuals who are entering our facilities. Then we can probably bring in better and more qualified candidates to actually work here who are looking to be the change.” Crowley added, “We don’t want to run a babysitting facility. We want to make sure that we have programs and services in place to give these individuals the best chance possible.”
Problems at both the Reintegration Center and the Milwaukee County Jail have become more conspicuous over the last year. Details emerged earlier this month regarding the death of 21-year-old Breion Green, who died in the jail just hours after he arrived there. Green’s family viewed a surveillance video showing Green hanging himself with a suicide-proof phone cord while in a solitary cell. A correctional officer walked by as Green took his own life. The family, their lawyer, and activists say the video shows Green’s death was preventable.
Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner that like many other parts of the community, the jail is facing workforce issues. “I think one of the issues that we’re facing as a community, and many businesses are facing, is not having the workforce actually to make sure that we are keeping people safe in our jails, or even in our community reintegration center,” Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner. “We have to make sure that we are paying folks adequately enough so they’re not straining themselves. And we can have quality folks in our jails who are actually tending to our residents within the system.”
This issue and others Crowley discussed during the luncheon led inevitable to the topic of finding additional revenue streams. “Without additional revenues that make sure that we can pay our employees, [we are jeopardizing] public safety,” Crowley said. “And even when you think about that building itself, and how dilapidated that building [the jail] is, there’s some investments that we haven’t been able to make.” Opening up additional revenue streams, such as a sales tax, would require the cooperation of the Legislature. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said that in terms of Milwaukee County, “revenue without reform is (dead on arrival),” TMJ4 reported.
Crowley pushed back against Vos’ comment during the luncheon, saying the county has pursued various reforms. He pointed to a reduction in the county’s assumed rate of return for pensions; an increase in the amount employees pay into the pension fund; and the consolidation of services such as EMS in North Shore as well as integrating veterans’ services into the county Department of Health and Human Services. “I’m glad the state is at least open as much as they are right now as it relates to local municipalities,” he said.
With the aid of emergency federal pandemic relief funds, the county has been able to fund various one-time expenses. Meanwhile, it has avoided using the money to plug a looming budget gap which will confront county services within the next two years. The transit system, for example, is facing a $40 billion deficit in the next two years. Proposed budget cuts prompted significant concerns that were discussed heavily by residents during public listening sessions. Many of those residents brought up the gradually increasing budget of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and a lack of transparency and oversight. Last year, the office created an aerial drone unit without approval from the board of supervisors, while the county was running a deficit.
Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner that working with the sheriff on the budget is “extremely important.”
“A lot of people forget, you know, no matter what the budget spends, the sheriff spends, I have to pay that bill. And I think it is critical to work with incoming Sheriff Denita Ball in making sure that there’s a level of accountability to the public and making sure that we are being as transparent as possible. I am always willing to work with the sheriff on that.”
It’s not all gloom, however. During the luncheon, Crowley highlighted that the county had been recognized as having the nation’s lowest per capita population of unhoused people living without shelter. “But I’m certainly not satisfied,” said Crowley, “because we know that there are still homeless people out in the streets. I look outside my office every day and I see the encampments.” Although the county does a regular point-In-time count of the unhoused population, the count has been criticized for occurring in the winter when many unhoused people look for shelters to keep out of the cold. Housing advocates, such as the Street Angels, have long reported a growing population of unhoused people. Oftentimes, these residents are choosing more secluded locations rather than making encampments out in the open. Since Nov. 5, the county has seen a spike in eviction filings to 68% above average, according to Eviction Lab.
The county’s overdose numbers have also set and broken records year after year. Last year over 600 lives were lost in drug-related deaths, largely due to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. A Wisconsin Policy Forum analysis stressed that the county should invest in drug treatment services. In addition to funding challenges within the county’s Behavioral Health Services, the analysis called Milwaukee’s treatment landscape “fragmented and incomplete.” By next year, the county will begin deploying vending machines stocked with narcan, fentanyl testing strips, and other supplies to communities. The supplies will come free of charge, and is one harm reduction strategy the county will be exploring in the future.
“Milwaukee County can’t do this alone,” Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner. “We have to work with our health systems, we have to work with the community partners as well as advocates and really hone in on what is the best solution in tackling the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths that we’re continuously seeing in this community.” Crowley added, “It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all, because we know that you can’t come with a cookie cutter approach, because every individual situation is different.” He foresees that while harm reduction conversations will continue, money from the opioid settlement will augment the possibilities. Regardless of the specific problem, however, Crowley remains confident that collaborative solutions are within reach.
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