The High Cost of the County Board
We could save millions and improve efficiency by cutting the county board and its huge staff.
Back in 1989 I did a feature story on Milwaukee county government. I was stunned by what I encountered. Though its 25 county supervisors drew a full-time salary, nearly half worked part-time. There simply wasn’t enough work for so many board members, so they spent much of their time on micro-managing county departments or petty squabbles with each other.
Milwaukee made a token effort to reduce the size of the board, but its 18 members are still far in excess of the average county board nationally, which has about six members. In 2006, I analyzed data from the National Association of Counties which showed that fully 10 percent of all board members in America were located in just one state: Wisconsin. No state had more total board members. Even huge states like New York and California had fewer county supervisors than Wisconsin.
But no county in this state comes close to Milwaukee in taxpayer dollars devoted to the county board. The annual budget for Racine’s county board, counting its 21 supervisors and all staff who serve the board, is $417,000. The annual budget for Dane County, with its 37 county board members and 4.75 full-time staffers, is $873,000. The annual bill for Milwaukee’s 18 supervisors and 56 staff members who serve the board: $6.5 million.
It was F. Thomas Ament who came up with the idea of turning Milwaukee’s supervisors into full-time positions, back in the late 1970s, when he served as board chair. It was based on an exalted idea of what most county supervisors actually did, and as a county executive, Ament would up the rewards preposterously, pushing through the infamous pension sweetener, with its lavish backdrop, that would have given him a $2 million pension had he served as long as planned.
The pension scandal won national attention as a prime example of government benefits run amok, and has left the county with a ruinous structural deficit the Public Policy Forum has warned will continue to grow worse.
You can’t blame current board members for this situation. But you can ask what they are doing about it. The willingness of the board to grab money from the county’s already paltry reserves suggests there’s little concern about the dire long-term financial situation. And the supervisors’ emphasis on preserving health care benefits above all other items in the budget is more than a little suspicious, as they stand to personally benefit from this. It exemplifies the decades-old courthouse style, where officials worry first and foremost about the benefits that go to them and their friends and relatives on the county payroll. This is the mentality that created lifetime health insurance (unique among the 72 counties), lavish pensions (ditto), and all the other benefits that have left county taxpayers with legacy costs that far exceed those of the other 71 counties.
Faced with calls for the board to reduce its size (a dozen Milwaukee suburbs passed referendums calling for this by overwhelming margins), the board cut one position, dropping from 19 to 18, and appeared to do that only to get rid of a supervisor, Joe Rice, who had long argued board members should be paid a part-time salary.
Meanwhile, we have the usual bickering between board members and County Executive Chris Abele, who complains the board has “crept into management of departments, rather than policymaking.” But there is nothing new about this. Executives and department managers have complained about this problem for decades. This jockeying for power goes all the way back to 1960, when the position of the state’s first county executive was created. At its core is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of county government.
Both Abele and County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic refer to the county board as the legislative branch, to distinguish it from the executive. That is complete nonsense. County board members don’t make legislation, they manage county departments; that’s why they are called county supervisors.
What many people (including, I suspect, some board members) don’t understand is that county government is an administrative arm of state government: it serves as local administrator of state programs, like the courts, the jails and policing state highways. It has no power whatsoever other than what the state deigns to give it. (By contrast, city governments have all power except that which is denied them by the legislature.)
When you look at upcoming issues for the state legislature they involve policymaking for the entire state: issues like the mining bill or the venture capital bill. When you look at the county budget discussions, it’s all about managing county departments: patrol of county parks, county employees health insurance, changes in the county transit system.
For most of Milwaukee County’s history, the board managed the departments. The addition of the county executive simply created duplication, two levels of managers. That’s why county officials bicker so much: because they essentially do the same thing and there are no clear rules for where the respective duties of executive and board begin and end.
Dimitrijevic says the board operates as “a check and balance” to the executive. It’s a lofty-sounding reference to how America’s executive, legislative and judicial branches, all with distinctly different roles, check and balance each other. But the county structure doesn’t do this: it simply provides a system of duplication. Thus, when Abele worked to develop the 44 story downtown tower, the board erupted and wanted to redo the whole thing. When Abele worked with every municipality in the county to create a new and cheaper way to handle patrol of the parks and eliminate duplication between governments, the board simply threw it out (with no discussion with these municipalities) and gave parks patrol back to the sheriff. Almost every major proposal in Abele’s budget was thrown out. That’s not a check and balance, that’s a redo of the budget.
The situation has grown worse because Dimitrijevic seems very anxious to expand her power. Some observers were shocked when she made Mayor Tom Barrett cool his heels and wait for some ten other folks to speak at a recent public county budget hearing. The normal procedure is to let a dignitary like this speak first. Was this because Barrett happens to be friendly with Abele and worked with him on the parks patrol proposal? “That’s just not done,” one Democrat told me. “She’s behaving royally. It’s bad for Milwaukee County, bad for local Democrats.”
Dimitrijevic pushed — unsuccessfully — to become a member of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council of Milwaukee County, which would have made her the only non-executive member of the body and added yet more duplication of Milwaukee’s executive and board chair. Dimitrijevic and the board have added what the county exec’s office calls a “slush fund” of $50,000 for future legal expenses for the board. But the county has a corporation counsel designated by state law to handle legal affairs; why more duplication? Dimitrijevic and the board refuse to give up their control of all county lobbyists; in any other government in Wisconsin they report to the executive. Worse, the board has now passed a provision that would forbid the executive — the highest ranking county official and the only one who represents more than one-eighteenth of the county’s voters — from lobbying the state legislature.
The provision is absurd. The legislature is not going to refuse to hear from the state’s top county official. What the board seems worried about is whether Abele — who successfully lobbied the legislature to create the position of county comptroller — might push for a reduction in the size of the board.
And Abele doesn’t exactly rule this out. “This is the only board in the state that is full time, but that’s probably the wrong metric,” he says. It’s more about the entire budget devoted to the board, he adds.
“If Milwaukee County was consistently having balanced budgets and didn’t face these huge deficits, no one would care about the size of the county board,” Abele says. “It’s more about getting a system that works.”
But given the massive cuts that have been required in the county parks, the transit system and other services, a reduction in the uniquely high costs of Milwaukee’s county board would help greatly. Instead, the board has pushed for an increase in the county sales tax.
The tension between the board and Abele has been portrayed in the media as a dispute between personalities, just as it was between former board chair Lee Holloway and executive Scott Walker, and between former board chair Robert Jackson and executive Tom Ament. I think that’s completely misleading.
Dimtirjevic and Abele actually meet every two weeks and both say the meetings have been cooperative and constructive. Abele says “there are many good hearted and well-intentioned people on the county board.” This is not about a clash of personalities, it’s about a duplicative (and wasteful) system that has guaranteed power battles since the first county executive took office.
How should the duplication be ended? “I think the question should be do we need a county executive,” says Dimitrijevic.
Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that the county exec is elected by and serves the entire county; the board chair, like all supervisors, serves a tiny minority of county voters. I suspect if you polled the citizenry, they would prefer to keep the exec, and the recent referendums certainly show they support cuts in the size of the board.
Some kind of reform is long overdue. I hope Abele pursues the issue with the legislature. For too long, we Milwaukee taxpayers have been overcharged — and over-entertained — by our dysfunctional county government.
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