Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why the State Doesn’t Hate Tom Ament Any More

By - Jul 30th, 2001 04:13 pm

Time was when Milwaukee County was a favorite whipping boy of the state. The administration of former Gov. Tommy Thompson didn’t think the county could do anything right. “When W-2 was started, they gave all counties but one an option to be a W-2 county,” says the man who was left out, Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament.

The state also stopped funding Milwaukee County’s general assistance program and took over the child welfare program. To date, there is little evidence the state is any better at running such programs: the child welfare system is still the subject of a legal suit and W-2, the replacement for welfare, received a negative evaluation by the Legislative Audit Bureau. But there is no doubt Thompson’s bureaucrats thought they were more effective than Ament’s.

The new governor, Scott McCallum, has taken over the county’s foster care system, but the momentum for this started under Thompson. “They like us more than they used to,” Ament says of the state. Actually, the old regime’s attitude wasn’t just dislike, it was downright hatred. “I think that’s probably right,” Ament concedes, “but I think under McCallum there’s been a softening of that.”

As a result, Ament is angling to get back into the welfare business. The W-2 program in Milwaukee has been run by one for-profit business (Maximus) and four non-profit agencies, including Employment Solutions (run by Goodwill Industries), which has decided to withdraw from the program. That could leave room for someone else to get into the business.

And what a business it’s been. W-2 contractors were rewarded for keeping expenses down and spent only two-thirds of the money budgeted in the first two years of the program, saving the state some $238 million, according to the Audit Bureau study. These contractors were rewarded with $65 million in profits, including $26 million for Milwaukee agencies. “They made more money than anybody dreamed of,” Ament says.

This approach has come under scathing criticism for denying needed services to welfare mothers while handing $9.5 million in profits to an agency like Employment Solutions, which earned the biggest windfall. “It’s a huge amount of revenue in the program,” says one observer. “Ament feels the county didn’t get revenue they could have.”

But Ament says “the state has tightened the purse strings so it’s impossible to make that kind of money again. I’m looking to not get hurt financially, not to make money on it.”

Ament believes McCallum is committed to providing more services to W-2 participants. “They’re much better, in wanting to legitimately have a program that provides training, education and true jobs for people.”

There’s no doubt Wisconsin could provide more services to W-2 participants. Estimates are that nearly half of people in Milwaukee County eligible for food stamps are not getting them. Wisconsin has been fined for several years straight by the Federal Department of Agriculture, whose statistics show poor people in Mississippi are nearly twice as likely as those in Wisconsin to get food stamps.

A state-created W-2 advisory committee has suggested the program eliminate the regions within Milwaukee County and make all W-2 agencies, regardless of where they are located, compete to provide services. This might give clients some leverage in trying to get needed help.

Ament says the county board has passed a resolution favoring the idea of getting back into the welfare business. “I think we can do a good job. I think the state now wants to approve us.”

But can the county compete with other local agencies in the price it charges for services? Ament sounds a bit profit-oriented in his answer: “I was looking at what Goodwill was paying its employees. That’s more than we pay.”

MARVIN DOES IT AGAIN: Two weeks ago, Common Council President Marvin Pratt floated the idea of making the city comptroller an appointed position rather than an elected one. He eventually voted against that idea but has now proposed another power shift. His proposal would change the way the Equal Opportunities Enterprise Program officer is appointed. Like most city positions, this one is appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, but Pratt would make the position an appointee of the council president only.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Ald. Tom Nardelli, never one to mince words. “I don’t see any other motivation beyond a power grab.”

Ald. James Bohl, who has co-sponsored the resolution, says, “It’s an opportunity for us [the Common Council] to provide greater control over what’s going on in the city.”

Beyond that Bohl would not comment, adding, “If you want to delve further, I suggest you talk to Alderman Pratt.”

Pratt did not respond to my interview request. But Ald. Angel Sanchez, another co-sponsor, says the EEOP office, which concerns itself with overseeing city bids and contracts to make sure they provide opportunities for minority or disadvantaged business enterprises, has been ineffective. “The whole office needs to be overhauled,” he says. “Not enough projects are going to these small contractors. It’s a very rigorous tough application process which very few contractors can do.”

The EEOP’s current officer, Bill Thompson, has been promoted to a different job in the city, and Mayor John Norquist has already suggested Rhonda U. Kelsey as his replacement. One source in the mayor’s office says Norquist has proposed moving the EEOP office from the first floor of City Hall to bring it closer to the Department of Administration. “Marvin may have thought it was going under more control of the mayor,” the source suggests, and launched a counter-proposal.

More likely, the policy change reflects that fact the common council members see the mayor as weakened, and feel emboldened to take away some of his power. It’s another sign of rising power among minority aldermen, which they hope will culminate in a minority mayor being elected in 2004.

Short Take

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel apparently decided to re-elect a couple of legislators. They included votes by Drzewiecki and Rude in the final tally on the state budget. Former state senator Brian Rude resigned in the spring of 2000 and former state senator Gary Drzewiecki was defeated in the 2000 election. How did they manage to vote for the state budget?

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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