Chris Abele Unveils Plan to Save Transportation
Annual fee would provide $27 million for county transit and roads. One supervisor already opposed.
Flanked by mass transit advocates, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele unveiled his “SAVE Transit” plan in a press conference this afternoon. After five budgets without personally introducing a levy increase, the county executive unveiled a plan to provide a “dedicated funding source” for the Milwaukee County Transit System, as well as the county’s highways, parkways and bridges. The plan would be funded by a $60 addition to the annual vehicle registration fee car paid by vehicle owners in Milwaukee County that would fund $27 million in annual county transportation improvements.
The increase would raise the total vehicle registration fee to $155 for city residents, with $75 going to the state and $20 going to the City of Milwaukee. Suburban county residents would pay $135 per vehicle under the proposal. As Abele repeatedly hammered home during the press conference, there is “no way to avoid it,” the county needs more money for transportation. Since Abele’s predecessor Scott Walker became governor, the state has reduced support for mass transit. Abele notes that since he has been in office, “the state has paid less and the county has paid more.” The county has avoided raising fares or cutting routes by using one-time federal grants to support the system, but most of those grants have or will shortly be exhausted.
Even after factoring in the increase, which would bring the total to $155, Abele notes the total is “still less than most Midwestern cities.” A chart on display at the press conference showed the annual fees less than Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Indianapolis.
Milwaukee County, and other municipalities, are severely restricted in their ability to raise funds to support transportation. Unlike cities in many other states, Wisconsin counties and municipalities cannot create an additional sales tax without a state law change. This has created the unusual setup where the Milwaukee County Transit System is heavily reliant on state aid (45 percent of the MCTS budget) with farebox revenue (29%), federal aid (16%) and the county property tax levy (10%) making up the rest. The vehicle registration fee, commonly called a “wheel tax,” is one of the only fees a county can raise to generate additional revenue. Answering a follow-up question during the press conference, Abele stated that “he would like something that is more progressive” for the fee breakdown, perhaps by vehicle type, but that the current state law only allows a blanket approach.
When questioned on the likelihood of the county board supporting the proposal, the county executive declined to play oddsmaker, but noted that the board understands the issue and shares the desire to provide quality services to county residents. Milwaukee County board chair Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. did not return a request for comment by the time of publication.
Specific details on the funding breakdown for the plan were not available at the time of publication. We are awaiting a formal press release from the county executive. [UPDATE 3:35 p.m.: A press release has been issued by the executive that includes a few more details on plan specifics not available at the press conference.]
The County Board Responds
UPDATE #2 (4:36 p.m.) – Supervisor Michael Mayo, Sr. who chairs the county’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee and has been a long-time proponent of dedicated funding via a sales tax, reached out in opposition to Abele’s proposal. Mayo emphatically stated “I am not in favor of a wheel tax.” The long-time supervisor noted that Abele’s move was a “flip flop” that would end up as a “double whammy” to Mayo’s constituents, who would see their registration fees rise 63% and still have to pay the state and city vehicle registration fees. Mayo claims Abele is “hurting more people than he’s helping.”
What about the fact that the state legislature would be required to approve a sales tax? “He runs to the state about everything else and they approve it, why not now? Why not just try? Dedicated funding will save our transit system, not a wheel tax.” Mayo’s suggestion that the county executive should look to the state legislature for help comes after Abele has successfully negotiated with the state for the arena deal and legislation that limited the authority of county supervisors and made their positions part-time.
The county executive will include the plan as part of his 2017 budget proposal that will be reviewed tomorrow. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, which includes a number of newly elected supervisors, will then begin the process of reviewing the budget. The board will return an amended version of the budget to the county executive in November, who then may veto or approve specific provisions. The board then has the right to vote to override any vetoes made by the county executive before the budget becomes law.
A potentially controversial part of the proposal, at least between the board and executive, are the modifications to the GO Pass. The pass, which grants free rides to seniors and those with disabilities, would be amended as part of the budget proposal. Pass holders would pay a $5 fee to obtain the card, and then be required to pay 25 cents per ride. The pass, created by the board, has cost $12 million over three years according to Abele.
Via press release, Abele notes “eligibility for the GO Pass will now be in line with eligibility for other government programs. To qualify for the GO Pass, seniors and individuals with disabilities must also be eligible for SSI, SSDI, EBD, or FoodShares. Administration of the GO Pass will shift from MCTS to the Aging and Disability Resource Centers. We believe that this change may also come with an added benefit – by bringing more people into the resource centers, more people may enroll in other programs for which they qualify. The county executive also plans to establish a committee of stakeholders that will determine the best way to implement these changes.”