Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who’s Right in County Budget Battle?

County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic trashes Abele’s budget. But did she improve it?

By - Oct 30th, 2012 10:39 am
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There’s a new sheriff in town, and she seems to wield a lot of power. County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic is tough, smart and energetic. And she has overseen a near dismantling of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s proposed 2013 budget, with board members on the finance committee voting to approve a host of changes.

“The votes were mostly 9 to zero,” Dimitrijevic brags. “I think we’re working together nicely.”

Dimitrijevic credits what she says is a unique style (“I think I’m different than my predecessor and any other board chair”) for her success, along with her open door policy (“I have an open office, people can come in any time.”)

Whatever she’s doing, the signs are strong that the full board of 18 supervisors is likely to approve most of what she wants, and quite possibly override any attempted vetoes by Abele. So is that good or bad for taxpayers?

Overriding the entire discussion is a looming $92 million dollar structural hole the county’s projections show it will face within five years. That’s about one-third of the current proposed budget of $275.4 million (Abele) or $278.7 million (county board).

“The county has an alarmingly low level of reserves,” says Rob Henken, the budget analyst for the non-partisan Public Policy Forum, “and neither side did much to address that in their budget.”

The major disagreements included the following:

The Sheriff’s budget. If you’re going to make progress on budget efficiencies, you probably need to start with the sheriff’s budget, which is about $122 million or 40 percent of the county’s tax levy, and rose by 61 percent in the ten years prior to Abele’s election. Abele proposed to cut $3.3 million from the Sheriff’s budget and make the patrol of the parks and lakefront the duty of the local police departments. He would give just over $1.7 million to the Milwaukee Police Department to provide this service and$125,000 to suburban departments, yielding a savings of about $1.5 million.

Dimitrijevic and board members restored the cuts in the sheriff’s budget and accepted a plan by Sheriff David Clarke that promises to dedicate 25 deputies to the parks. But is all this manpower needed? As I’ve written before, local police departments already patrol the parks and didn’t feel they were getting much help from the Sheriff.  If they were getting good service from the Sheriff, there would have been an outcry from municipal leaders over Abele’s proposal. There wasn’t one complaint.

Clarke complained in the past that he didn’t have enough resources to patrol the parks and his own figures show that just 32 percent of deputies assigned to the parks actually patrolled there. Dimitrijevic’s plan merely gives him the same amount of money he had last year, which he said was inadequate. So I asked her, what assurance is there that he will this time provide the parks patrol? “You’ll have to ask the Sheriff that,” she said.

Henken declines to take a stand on the Abele/board disagreement but does note the potential savings to be gained through merging of operations by local governments. “If this is an indication of the board’s disposition toward intergovernmental cooperation and cost sharing, that would be troublesome.”

Employee Salaries and Benefits. Abele’s budget calls for employees to pay a larger share of their health care costs while providing cost-of-living salary hikes for employees plus bonuses for outstanding employees. Dimitrijevic’s budget kills the bonuses and uses the money to reduce the contribution to health care by employees. Hers is a more union-oriented approach, while Abele’s goal is to “foster a work environment that rewards employees that go above and beyond,” says Abele’s spokesperson Brendan Conway. “We have an employee in child support who took 12,000 calls while the average employee took 6,000. This is the kind of employee who should be rewarded.”

Dimitrijevic says Abele’s budget could leave employees paying 29 percent of their health care costs. Conway counters that “70 percent of county employees never have out-of-pocket expenses for health care and would be better off with raises.” (Since this column’s publication, Conway sent an email clarifying that 70 percent of employees never reach the maximum for out-of-pocket expenses.) He notes that Dimitrijevic protects county supervisors, who are not eligible for either salary raises or bonuses but are affected by the increase in health care costs

Is some compromise between the two approaches possible? Neither side offered any.

Employee Wellness Program: Dimitrijevic’s budget provides $950,000 for an employee wellness program which she says is based on the successful City of Milwaukee program. It will provide biometric screening of all employees and follow-up wellness checks. More healthy employees will reduce health care costs, she argues.

Conway says the program robs the Debt Service Fund to get its funding. He also says it will not have the same impact as the city program because the city doesn’t cover retirees while the proposed county program mostly covers the 7,500 county retirees covered by health insurance.

Nope, not much room for compromise on this issue, either.

Abele’s budget: Abele has asked for a significant increase in staff. Conway estimates it as a 20 percent increase in the exec’s budget. He argues that the county exec’s staff was reduced by the board in the Walker years and that the requested staff can help improve planning and strategic decision-making. Dimitrijevic says the budget increases Abele wants come “on the backs of county employees,” referring to the increase in health care contributions.

There seems little likelihood the board will bend on this. More staff for Abele will be seen as more power for the county exec, and the board wants to dominate. The classic example is Abele’s request for one county lobbyist. The board has two lobbyists that report to it, and is also spending $40,000 this year to keep lobbyist Bill Broydrick on retainer.

In essence, these lobbyists report to Dimitrijevic, a supervisor with a district representing one-eighteenth of the county’s residents, while Abele is answerable to the entire county. When I asked Dimitrijevic if she knew of any government where the lobbyists don’t report to the executive, she cited the City of Milwaukee. But the city actually has three lobbyists who report to the mayor and a part-time lobbyist who works for the Common Council.

Dimitrijevic also contends that she and the executive work jointly on lobbying. But there is little evidence the two are working together on anything, as their radically different budgets prove.

Short Takes 

-It turns out the Milwaukee-based Einhorn Family Foundation paid for the controversial voter fraud billboards I wrote about last week. The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now and the African-American website theGrio tracked down the information and reported it, and the foundation’s PR firm confirmed this.

-Less than one week after my colleague Jeramey Jannene offered a critique of the problems with the proposal to eliminate transfers on county buses, county officials have now dropped the idea.

-Will any legislators address the need to license the kind of private gun sellers who sold the gun used in the Brookfield spa shooting? In comments on my story, some gun owners supported the idea.

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who’s Right in County Budget Battle?”

  1. Danimal says:

    In the Wisconsin of today that seems to demonize it’s public employees, I think it is important to not simply gloss over the County Executive’s proposals for employees “pay[ing] a larger share of their health care costs.” The proposal removed all contributions from the county into employee health savings accounts ($500 for single, $1,000 for partners, $1,500 for families), increased premiums by an average of $360/year, and increased the deductible by $300 (from $500 single/$1,500 partners and families). Most workers make under $40,000/year. For a person with familial coverage that is a $2,160/year pay cut, or roughly 5.4% IF they make $40,000. Again, most make under that, so we are talking about an even greater percentage for most workers. I would say that is pretty significant and indeed is as the Chairwoman says, balancing the budget on the backs of county employees. The initial budget review published by the county shows how this is drastically more than state of Wisconsin and City of Milwaukee employees. http://www.scribd.com/doc/109226949/2013-CB-Sfaff-Overview

    Furthermore, the proposed bonus structure is illegal under the Milwaukee County Code of Ethics.

  2. Sam says:

    I have a lot of respect for Dimitrijevic and the budget she and the rest of the county board have created. Instead of following Abele and taking the easy and, to be blunt, stupid “no tax increase no matter what” approach, they actually started a serious discussion about what services and infrastructure need to exist for our community to thrive and how to fund them. They even ramped up efforts to actually ask the public, something government in Milwaukee has never been good at. Every budget process should look like this…

  3. Al says:

    ‘So I asked her, what assurance is there that he will this time provide the parks patrol? “You’ll have to ask the Sheriff that,” she said.’

    Why didn’t someone on the board ask this question? Isn’t oversight of the sheriff’s budget request part of the board’s responsibility?

    From an outside view (I live in the area but not in Milwaukee County), it looks like a continuation of the past 9 years – the county exec and the board don’t talk, don’t agree, and make no attempt to meet the other part-way. Both sides are to blame, but it’s the entire county that suffers the consequences.

  4. Frank says:

    Since only half of the county board members were on the “Finance Committee”… what were the other half doing? Are they so overwhelmed that a committee needed to be created? One would figure that the budget would be an important enough topic for all board members to participate. I understand that committees are set up to stream line the political process… but it would be nice to have to constituents represented. That is the reason why people vote… to be represented.

  5. Jay says:

    Why does this seem to be more about a power grab by the board than about creating a sensible budget?

  6. Nichoas says:

    The board continues their dysfunction…they seem to care more about scoring political points against the CE than coming up with a decent budget.

    It may be news to them, but most people don’t want to pay more taxes for no discernible increase in efficiency of services.

  7. Jesse Hagen says:

    Have any of you actually sat down & looked at the county board district maps? The gerrymandering is pathetic, low accountability starts here.

    Logically it doesn’t make sense that most of the voters in Milwaukee county would choose Walker or even Abele, then elect the board that exists. Fix the gerrymandering, eliminate too many supervisors & increase accountability.

    We won’t get results until that point.

  8. Jerad says:

    One area I really disagree witht he board is with the benefits contribution and bonuses. I don’t understand what is ridiculous about paying 29% of your own health care costs. I work a very large bank, have great benefits and pay in 26% of my own costs and I think that is fantastic. My last position was probably double that. IMO any contribution rate under 35% is pretty darn resonable.

    Also, what’s wrong with pay for performance. It’s exactly those types of systems that have been proven to increase employee production and help rid the workplace of people that do just enough to get by. Government in general could do well to implement those types of systems.

  9. Annie says:

    @Danimal: So someone doing twice the work should only get paid as much as someone doing half as much? What kind of Code of Ethics is that? Who does that protect? How can Milwaukee County keep high quality employees around?

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