Op-Ed

Don’t Downsize Milwaukee County Board

Milwaukee needs the best representation it can get, and that requires a full-time board.

By , Milwaukee Transit Riders Union - Feb 6th, 2013 09:00 am
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At the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union we’re disappointed to hear calls at the state level to all but dismantle the County Board under the guise of reform. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors provides a great service to Milwaukee County residents, and we believe these current proposals are a direct attack on our ability to make our own decisions at local level about how we want to be governed.

No one is saying that the county isn’t facing challenges; to the contrary, we think a strong county board will be the most effective way to meet these challenges. If reform is needed, we believe that the dialogue around it needs to happen at the local level and in an open and honest fashion. Unfortunately, the current push for a part-time board falls short in both of these categories. The arguments surrounding this proposal are disingenuous and have more to do with spite and politics than Milwaukee County citizens’ best interests.

Argument: The county board doesn’t do enough work to be a full time body.
Fact: To the contrary, the Milwaukee County Board has a large number of responsibilities that other aren’t present in other counties. Their responsibilities include:

  • Transit
  • Paratransit/TransitPLUS
  • Parks
  • General Mitchell International Airport
  • Courts
  • Mental Health
  • Senior Programs
  • Family Care
  • Sheriff funding
  • County highways
  • Jail
  • House of Correction
  • Medical Examiner’s Office
  • County Ordinances

This is in addition to their core duty of representation. On average, a Milwaukee County Supervisor represents a comparable number of citizens as a member of the State Assembly.

Argument: 71 out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have part-time boards.
Fact: While it is true that all of the other Wisconsin counties have part-time boards, the comparison between these counties is disingenuous. The size and demographics of Milwaukee County make it unique to Wisconsin. Milwaukee County has a significantly larger and more diverse population than any other county in Wisconsin. More people means more services are needed, which means much more is demanded of Milwaukee County Supervisors than, for example, Iron County Supervisors who run a county with a population that is less than 1% of the size of Milwaukee’s.

Argument: Milwaukee County voters endorsed county board cuts in April 2012.
Fact: Advocates of the bill have been arguing that it is not a violation of local control because of ‘a referendum’ held in April 2012 that went in favor of board cuts and part-time status. This is misleading. What did happen was a series of municipal referendums in a dozen suburbs. All of these referendums occurred on April 3, on the same ballot as the Republican Presidential Primary and an uncontested Democratic Presidential nomination, resulting in a skewed turnout. What makes the results of this vote even more dubious is the fact that the City of Milwaukee, which accounts for two-thirds of Milwaukee County’s population, was not part of this. With these issues in mind, we feel that the suburban referendums should not be construed as an indicator of widespread support for this bill.

Argument: This bill doesn’t violate home rule because the changes will be decided by a referendum that it mandates
Fact: A key provision of the current proposed bill, cutting 85% of the county board’s budget and capping it at 0.4% of the tax levy will not go before voters, it will be dictated by the bill. The results of the referendum will be largely ceremonial since if it goes in favor of keeping a full time board there will be no money to operate it. There may not even be enough money to run an effective part-time board. The cuts proposed would not leave enough money for the County Board to employ policy analysts, severely limiting the Board’s ability to make informed decisions.

Argument: The County Board micromanages the county and its agencies
Fact: This is perhaps the most outrageous assertion made by the largely conservative, big business backers of downsizing. It’s also flatly untrue. On the contrary, the board has acted on its responsibility to look out for the best interests of Milwaukee County residents, even when that has meant going against the interests of the wealthy corporate elite that run Milwaukee. This includes standing up to the county executive when he proposes unsound ideas. The county board has a history of doing just that; making common sense budget adjustments and saving vital public services from the chopping block in the process.

With the crises that Milwaukee County is facing right now, including the potential for a 30% cut to transit, decrepit parks, unemployment, poverty, homelessness and racial inequality, what we need from state level is a fair shake financially not attacks on our ability to govern ourselves. As Milwaukee County residents and bus riders, we believe that it’s time for the state government to take its hands off our county board and collaborate to help us start improving Milwaukee for everyone before it’s too late.

Kieth Crum is the Treasurer for the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union. The Milwaukee Transit Riders Union is a group of over 400 bus riders and other citizens (and counting) dedicated to better public transportation in the Milwaukee area. Our members are of all ages and walks of life.

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Categories: Op-Ed

2 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Don’t Downsize Milwaukee County Board”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s a fair point to say that Milwaukee County shouldn’t be compared to other Wisconsin counties. Instead, it should be compared to counties in other states with similar demographics and socioeconomic demands. This was done for the county board in 2004 (see the link in a recent JS article: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/proposal-would-cut-county-board-by-six-members-slash-budget-mv8ll4u-189896161.html). It found that the Milwaukee County Board budget was about double that of the average comparable county. Obviously, the board did not act on those findings and only now that they are threatened have a couple of them admitted that they are in need of reform.

    The state proposals don’t violate home rule because home rule does not apply to Milwaukee County. The county is an administrative arm of the state and is akin to a state department tasked with providing state services to Milwaukee County residents. The state can, more or less, do whatever it wants with Milwaukee County. This is a completely different discussion than anything that would impact the City of Milwaukee, which does have home rule. Hopefully, one thing that comes out of this mess is a greater public understanding of state and local civics.

  2. Frank says:

    They should just make the Mayors of each town in this county perform the duties of a supervisor.

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