Milwaukee County budget signed with some dissent

    Downtown Milwaukee (photo from wiki commons)
    Downtown Milwaukee (photo from wiki commons)

    Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele signed the 2020 County budget Tuesday, which focuses on public transportation, public safety, and investing in struggling communities. The budget was approved by the Board of Supervisors with no vetoes, but is just one step taken along a long road.

    “The tough choices we have made over the years have resulted in this balanced budget that reflects our values and allows us to be responsible fiscal stewards,” said Abele. “Using a racial equity lens to shape the 2020 budget helped us to prioritize transit investments, launch new health and human services initiatives and further modernize our public safety approach.”

    One major hurdle the County Board had to overcome was a $28 million budget gap. In January, Milwaukee became the focal point of a budget war between opposing sides of the political aisle in Madison. Republicans said the Cream City would have sucked up too much of a $40 million plan by Gov. Tony Evers to replace lead lateral water lines statewide, so they struck the plan down. Efforts were also made to cut $14 million allocated to Milwaukee through the state’s shared revenue program. Evers vetoed the measure.

    In September Abele, along with County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb Sr (District 1), Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee ), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), and other local officials, launched the Move Forward MKE initiative to help remedy some of the budget strain. The legislative measure gave Milwaukee officials the option to raise the city’s sales tax by 1%, moving away from the unpopular idea of raising property taxes. Move Forward MKE, however, was just another step along the long road. Cumulatively, $278 million has been cut over the last eight years to Milwaukee’s budget, mostly through the streamlining of services.

    Milwaukee’s 2020 budget invested in public transportation, including maintaining Freeway Flyers, preserving routes servicing minority communities, and keeping bus fares at $2.25 per ride. Investments were also made to the city’s Health and Human Services apparatus, and in tackling neglected infrastructure. Specifically, a County Board press release cites “the outdated playgrounds at Rose, Indigenous Peoples’, Washington, and Mitchell Airport parks.”

    Supervisors issued amendments to the budget plan, and sparred on the city’s fiscal direction. Sup. Sequanna Taylor (District 2) proposed dedicating $100,000 to the County’s Housing Division to develop a plan for homeless survivors of domestic violence. “Safe housing is a pathway to freedom and recovery from domestic violence,” said Taylor. “The availability of temporary housing for people exiting abusive environments, especially for single women and their children, is a vital factor for determining whether and when a person can leave.” Her proposal was approved by the County Board.

    Lack of housing is quickly becoming a hot topic in Milwaukee, particularly following the “eviction” of dozens of homeless residents living in a notorious tent city under a highway bridge on Interstate I-94 downtown. “Such housing is also limited in Milwaukee,” said Taylor, speaking of her proposal for domestic violence survivors. “Its frequent unavailability prevents people from leaving, surviving, and healing. As a public servant, it is my duty and responsibility to fulfill this critical public need for more housing that can accommodate people who are escaping domestic violence so they can start over and begin to heal.”

    Taylor’s proposal was co-sponsored by Supervisors Lipscomb, James “Luigi” Schmitt (District 6), Willie Johnson Jr. (District 13), Eddie Cullen (District 16), and Steven Shea (District 13). “Today,” said Lipscomb, “the Board of Supervisors adopted a balanced and responsible Milwaukee County budget that preserves essential services for our citizens and continues the unprecedented cooperation between the Board and the County Executive.”

    Lipscomb proposed an amendment, which was adopted by the board, maintaining transit service for 75% of the bus riders who could have had their routes cut. He also sought to move up the effective date of a proposed 1% cost of living pay increase for county employees by six months, and secured $300,000 for the retention and recruitment of corrections officers.

    Sup. Schmitt applauded the efforts to balance the budget, saying, “Each year we are forced to do more with less, and this year was no different. We had to make tough choices again this year but we should all be proud that we produced a balanced budget while maintaining services.” Not everyone, however, was happy about where some of the budget money was being allocated.

    “This budget is full of wasteful spending,” said Sup. Deanna Alexander, “fueled by the largest tax increase in a decade, and I cannot support it.” Alexander helped secure funding for a lighted sign for Noyes Pool “Many people aren’t even aware that Noyes Pool is open to the public,” she pointed out.

    Alexander hopes providing funding for a new sign will increase public use of the pool, “and more revenue to help maintain the facility.” By contrast, the outgoing supervisor, who won’t seek re-election in 2020, said she was “stunned” to learn that the county has budgeted $142,000 to redesign a golf clubhouse parking lot.

    “This is a clear example of wasteful spending and shows that this county board has turned a blind eye to overbidding, which too many people now consider the normal way of doing business. How many other county projects in this budget are based on inflated costs and wasteful spending?” The board approved Alexander’s amendment to shift $35,000 from the parking lot project to get a lighted sign for the Noyes Pool (11-7).

    Sup. Dan Sebring (District 11), also criticized a state-level proposal to impose a new tax for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. Sebring called the proposal, “nothing more than a thinly veiled fascist attempt to penalize tax paying citizens for not riding the bus.” The conservative county supervisor, who drew controversy after calling pro-immigration and anti-ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) bus art, sponsored by the Milwaukee Art Museum, “an offensive abomination,” said that his colleagues, “have revealed their belief that tax paying citizens are nothing more than cash machines to spit out unlimited monies on demand for whatever unnecessary purpose they see fit without consequence.”

    The rideshare tax, according to legislators who support it, is purposed to raise funds for the Milwaukee County Transit System. Going further, Sup. Sebring states that the county is under no obligation to provide public transportation. If it passed, the tax would impose an extra 50-60 cent fee for services like Lyft and Uber. Some 55% of the funds raised by the tax would go to MCTS, while the other 45% would be disseminated to other cities and municipalities for road repair and public safety projects.

    “If my colleagues on the Board want more people to ride the bus they should build a better, safer Milwaukee County Transit System that people will want to use, not be forced to use because they’re being taxed out of making their own choices…and they should do it within the financial constraints currently before them,” declared Sebring.

    Sup. Patti Logsdon (District 9) also disapproved of the $6.7 million property tax increase, which was approved by the board 14-4. “Milwaukee County homeowners need tax relief, not a tax increase,” said Logsdon. “We rely too much on property taxes and need to find another source of revenue for Milwaukee County.”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.