Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders announced last week they’d reached an agreement on administering the state’s shared revenue program. News about the details of that plan sent waves of unease through Milwaukee. The deal will help the city of Milwaukee and the county stave off a fiscal crisis, deep budget cuts and mass layoffs of municipal workers. But a slew of conditions will reduce local control and undo recent victories by police reform activists.
“There is too much at stake for Milwaukee County’s future, and the future of our entire state, to keep kicking this can down the road,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley in a statement after the deal was announced. “The time is now to address local revenues and give communities across Wisconsin the resources they need to keep their constituents healthy and safe.” Year by year decreases in the amount of shared revenue the state sends to Milwaukee have put county and city agencies in the red. Without the 2% sales task proposed in the new deal, the city of Milwaukee could lay off a quarter of its employees.
Mayor Cavalier Johnson said that the cuts would be “devastating.” In a conversation with Crowley and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson warned that 400 to 500 police officers could be cut. Libraries, the fire department and new developments in the city would also be threatened. The county’s outlook wouldn’t be much better, with transit routes and numerous other services on the line.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Johnson said averting financial catastrophe for Milwaukee was the “top objective.” The mayor said, “there are aspects of this legislation that I strongly object to. However, through the give-and-take, no party to these negotiations is completely satisfied with [the] final product. The governor has played an essential role in bringing the legislation to this point, and legislative leaders deserve significant credit.” Crowley stressed that Milwaukee County has “unique financial challenges that other communities across the state don’t have in terms of scale, cost, or impact across the state.”
In a statement, Crowley added, “When you work on a bill as historic and far-reaching as this one not everyone will get everything on their wish list. Nevertheless, this deal helps our organization avoid the single biggest threat to achieving its goals and sets our region up for long-term success.”
Under the shared revenue deal, a two-thirds majority vote from the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board will be needed to approve the new sales tax — a significantly lower bar than the one set in a previous Republican proposal, which called for a referendum approved by a majority of voters in order to raise the sales tax. Neither Crowley nor Johnson favored the referendum route, saying it was likely to fail.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) also stressed the dire choices before Milwaukee. Johnson told Wisconsin Examiner that not receiving more funding “means potentially losing all or nearly all of our library services, hundreds of fire and police positions eliminated, and significant losses of other city and county employees responsible for government services.”
“That said, my concern first and foremost is ensuring Milwaukee can meet its pension obligations,” Johnson added, “and, importantly, do so without jeopardizing public safety or other services.” Although she was not in the meetings where Evers, Republican leaders and Milwaukee officials hashed out the deal, she was updated throughout the process, she said.
Ald. Lamont Westmoreland, who represents a predominately African American district on Milwaukee’s North Side, described the feeling that his constituents and his city are pawns in a political battle fought in Madison. “It would be great if for once typical political behavior and hate toward particular political parties and/or communities could be set aside during pivotal moments like these,” Westmoreland told Wisconsin Examiner. “Wishful thinking, though. At this time, I have no comment on the direction of my vote.”
At what cost?
Among the conditions in the deal are a requirement that Milwaukee not use funds raised by levying taxes to fund staff positions “for which the principal duties consist of promoting individuals on the basis of their race, color, ancestry, national origin, or sexual orientation.” The city is also forbidden from using new funds to support the downtown street car system.
The deal requires the city of Milwaukee to maintain police and fire personnel at least at their current levels, which Republican legislators described as a ban on “defunding the police.” Furthermore, the Milwaukee Public School district will be forced to hire 25 school resource officers and ensure that they are present during school hours and “a reasonable number are present during other school-related activities.” Beginning in the 2025-26 year, the school board will also be required to collect data on ordinance violations to shape where resource officers should be deployed.
That essentially erases the work of student activists in Milwaukee, who worked for years to remove resource officers. Students reported that resource officers made them feel less safe, that officers didn’t de-escalate conflicts and used force on students or detained them when it wasn’t necessary. In 2020, the school district canceled its contract with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), in which the district paid for officers to be stationed in the schools. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers introduced bills to reverse those steps. Representatives from the Milwaukee Police Association, testifying in favor of the return of police to Milwaukee schools, discounted the concerns of students as “pop culture.”
Cendi Tena, co-executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), was dismayed by the shared revenue deal. LIT and other student activist organizations were at the forefront of removing resource officers from schools.
“To say that we are disappointed with the governor’s decision to approve the Shared Revenue Proposal is an understatement,” Tena told Wisconsin Examiner. “Our members, partners and staff spent years organizing to remove police officers from inside and outside of our schools. In 2020, the democratically elected School Board of Directors voted unanimously to terminate the contracts between the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Public Schools. Today we received confirmation that [the governor] will be approving the proposal next week, completely undermining what our communities and local officials decided was best for students and their safety.” Tena said.
“We already accomplished what was once thought to be impossible, and we will do it again,” she added.
Community activist Vaun Mayes called the deal “ridiculous.” Still, Mayes told Wisconsin Examiner, “I get how we got here.”
“The Republicans are clearly doing this just out of spite and out of disdain for Milwaukee,” Mayes said. With staffing shortages at Milwaukee PD, Mayes wonders where the resource officers will come from, particularly when violent crime and fatal drug overdoses are top priorities. “A lot of this stuff, it don’t even make sense how they’re doing it,” he said.
The deal also removes power from the city’s Fire and Police Commission. Control and management of the police and fire departments would instead go to their chiefs. Further, at least one FPC member would be required to be selected from a list provided and vetted by the police and fire unions. In the case of Milwaukee PD, that would be the Milwaukee Police Association, which has blasted the work of police reform activists and new policies passed by the FPC in recent months.
The FPC currently sets recruitment and testing standards for fire and police departments, disciplines personnel, holds discipline appeal hearings and independently investigates and monitors citizen complaints. Since 2020, the FPC has banned no-knock warrants and choke holds.
Amanda Avalos, vice-chair of the FPC, called the deal “extremely disappointing.” Avalos told Wisconsin Examiner, “This is a huge step backwards for Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission is the country’s strongest and most powerful oversight body with the ability to do tremendous good for public safety. In recent years especially, our FPC has accomplished significant progress via intentional and thorough community vetting and collaboration between all stakeholders.”
“My commitment to the people of Milwaukee remains firm,” Avalos added. She added that it remains unclear how else the plan may alter the FPC in the near future.
In April, a policy was passed by the commission requiring the release of video of incidents in which people were killed by police to the victims’ family within 48 hours, and to the public within 15 days. The policy was fought for and won by a coalition of community activists. It also earned an immediate rebuke from the police union. During the Republican National Convention next year, the policy will be suspended at the request of Milwaukee police chief Jeffery Norman.
Mayes said Norman has been more open to having conversations with community members than prior chiefs. “It won’t be him that I would be worried about, it would be any other person that comes after him,” said Mayes. A chief who succeeds Norman could use the power granted by the shared revenue deal to roll back more reforms. “Unless we do something politically where we become a majority again and get some of these seats back [in the Legislature] and get the leverage that the Republicans have right now, we’re going to be in quite a space in the next years,” said Mayes.
The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression also condemned the shared revenue deal. The group was among those that called for new policies and reforms passed by the FPC.
The group is calling for a shared revenue plan with no strings attached, that the FPC be preserved, resource officers not be returned to schools, and that there be greater transparency from Mayor Johnson, County Executive Crowley, and other officials. “We will fight for this to not pass,” the group said in a statement. “We deserve a fair share revenue bill, as Milwaukee puts in the most to the State’s revenue — yet we get the least back. We call upon all to join us in our fight to make sure Milwaukee gets what it deserves.”
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