Dave Reid

Is it Time for Milwaukee to Consider a Combined City-County Government?

By - Mar 5th, 2009 12:45 pm
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Nobody argues this will be a quick, or easy change, but it seems to me that the benefits outweigh the costs.  Municipal government plays a vital role and provides necessary services, but sometimes you can have too much, or in this case too many.

The lack of development in the Park East is an example of this problem.  There has been debate over whether or not the City of Milwaukee should use tax incremental financing (TIF) to fund development projects in the county owned Park East properties.  Oddly, the question that is rarely if ever asked is why doesn’t Milwaukee County sell the land for $1?  I say this not because I want Milwaukee County to lose out on funding, but when Milwaukee County sells that land for $1 or $2 million and then a developer comes to the City for a TIF , the burden has simply been shifted from one level of government to the other without any value creation. Further the goals of the city and the county are dramatically different when it comes to the Park East.  It’s clear that Milwaukee County is attempting to prop up their budget with land sales, whereas the City of Milwaukee is attempting to look at how the project fit the area, does it meet zoning, and will it add to the urban fabric.  This divergence of goals has crippled development in the Park East and is a direct result of having to deal with two levels of government each with competing interests.

Improving our mass transit system in Southeast Wisconsin has also been a victim of this problem and in this case it has been a problem for decades. Go back to the 90’s when Milwaukee received hundreds of millions of dollars for new mass transit initiatives, and realize that only $91.5 million of those dollars are still sitting in a bank account almost twenty years later.  It’s clear from looking at the votes in recent times that having two levels of government, again with two diverging goals, has lead to this stalemate.  The City of Milwaukee has worked to bring rail projects that would spur development in the core and connect to the region, while Milwaukee County has worked to protect its interests, primarily the Milwaukee County Transit System.  What is clear is that $91.5 million would have been spent on some sort of transit project, be it a combined streetcar and express bus solution, or an all express bus solution, but something would have been done.

Of course there are the issues that would have to be resolved such as the boundary lines, how to handle the county’s pension fund issues, the possibility of layoffs, and so on, but it is time to investigate the possibility of eliminating a level of government, because this could actually bring about swifter more efficient action for our community.

Categories: Real Estate

9 thoughts on “Is it Time for Milwaukee to Consider a Combined City-County Government?”

  1. Markitect says:

    Unfortunately the County is obligated to sell the Park East land below market rates…it was part of the agreement made by the County, City, State, and Feds to get the freeway demolished in the first place. Also, the State and Feds get a cut of the money the County receives from any of the PE land sales. So, $1 lot sales aren’t allowed.

  2. Markitect says:

    I made a typo in my previous message.

    It should read “the County is obligated to sell the Park East land AT market rates” as per the agreement (not “below market rates”).

  3. Dave Reid says:

    @Markitect I was actually aware of that, but of course the County could go back to the State/Feds and rework the deal. Or possibly simply pay them a cut of what a market rate sale would be and take the loss to get things moving. The point is, the two levels of government are simply shifting the burden around and that isn’t helping getting things going.

  4. TRR says:

    YES!!! That would make sooo much sense, but the suburbs in the County would never go with it.

  5. Erich says:

    I agree that the City and County need to consolidate services, land sales, benefit purchasing, etc. The redundancy in City and County services Milwaukee County proper is shopworn ideology. I am not inferring that municipalities should annex; however, I do feel that essential services and State and Federal programs/funds/grants should be governed under one system. This would create a much more cost-effective means of providing better services and purchasing of health insurance, negotiated benefits, capitial equipment, etc. Indianapolis has consolidated police and fire services with Marion County and is looking to transcend the trend to all similar type services. Service levels increase, costs are down, and dysfunctional politics don’t mire the associated processes as much. Thanks for keeping this seemingly and continually buried topic alive.

  6. Chonter says:

    Would this effectively make one huge city for purposes of population reporting? I understand Nashville and Miami work this way right?

  7. Jesse says:

    The question shouldn’t be if we should remove the county level of government, that’s a given. They’ve proven time and again they are incompetant, wasteful, and a barrier of progress for the city and suburbs alike. The question should really be who/what entities take over their responsibilities?

    Should/Would the state come in and actually administer the unfunded mandates they foist on us? I doubt they would want to, but will they?

    Should county-level (un)elected boards be setup to oversee parks, airports, or any other services?

    Any ideas?

  8. I think the most politically surmountable opportunity for consolidation would be to operate the office of the assessor as a county position.
    Every Milwaukee County community employs assessors either as staff, or on a contract basis with private firms. Of course, the City of Milwaukee’s department is by far the largest.
    I would suggest the City could contract to do all assessments on a countywide basis, eliminating the assessors in the other communities in the county. The city’s water utility provides a rough example of how that can be done.
    It would not be terribly difficult to implement. As it is, each taxable property in Milwaukee County bears a unique 10-digit tax code identification number in a lovely coordinated system.
    Politically do-able?
    I’d hope so. For instance, the Cook County Assessor handles the assessment all properties, including those in the City of Chicago, as well as its suburbs.
    The County of Milwaukee is a nice size and shape, but it is a horrible organization and very poorly structured. Curiously, the State Constitution is silent on the matter of counties. It does not appear a constitutional amendment would be required to abolish them, or significantly alter the structure of county government.
    I would also suggest the same provisions that allow the City of Milwaukee to have unique status among other cities might apply as well to the County of Milwaukee.

    Michael Horne

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