Walker wants to know what we want
Scott Walker asked for the public’s input for the 2011 county budget and he received one message loud and clear — protect, improve and expand transit.
The listening session, held Monday afternoon, was filled with seniors, disabled persons and advocates for the mentally ill. They listened as Walker explained the challenges he and the county board face each year when developing a budget and his campaign stump on privatization and tax cuts.
When given the chance, the public demanded expanded bus service and a restoration of transit services that have been reduced or eliminated over the years.
“Why aren’t you fixing the bus system that needs to be fixed?” one woman asked after accusing Walker of wasting the $91 million in federal funds earmarked for transit projects. She also described how cuts to service in the southern portions of the county have left her having to walk six blocks to a bus stop and transfer three times to get to her job.
A blind man demanded the restoration of the transit system’s call center, which allowed riders to call a live operator, who could direct them to the proper routes and give them real time stop information. Now, transit users received an automated service or are directed to use the Internet to obtain route information.
Another woman explained that cutting bus routes forces disabled riders to use the county’s Transit-Plus service which costs taxpayers more money. She added that finding home health workers is difficult when bus lines are cut and taking away the ability of disabled persons to travel to work, social events and political forums leads to isolation and higher health costs.
After Walker assured another citizen that he has traveled on a bus, he immediately passed the buck for much of our transit woes to MCTS, the city, the county board and the state and federal government.
“The transit service proposes cuts, not me,” he said. “The last full route cut was in 2006. We need to put the buses where businesses are now. The mayor went to the federal government and they changed the regulations, giving the city 60 percent of the $91 million for a 3-mile loop downtown,” were all non-answers given by Walker.
Walker touted his commitment to rapid transit options, which would attract more riders who want a fast and efficient ride. He also supported the continuance of Transit-Plus stops being located further than ¾ of a mile from regular bus stops (the recommended stop by the federal government).
The idea of privatization also drew questions from the audience. Stephanie Bloomingdale, a union representative for nurses at the county’s mental heath complex, tried to convince Walker that the privatization moves he has made there — outsourced dietary workers — were harming the patients by providing the improper foods for medications or feeding solids when some patients need smooth foods. “The savings are not noticeable and the problems are causing monetary and human costs,” she said.
“One of my friends died due to budget cuts. You’re killing people,” He added that inmates at the House of Corrections were also dying due to Walker’s policies.
When approached after the meeting the man was reluctant to speak, but Walker responded to the outburst that his goal through privatization is to provide good quality care and services. He added that whatever is happening at the House of Corrections is under the Sheriff’s review.
Some citizens asked why the county doesn’t tax alcohol or the income of major league baseball players to raise revenues; others sought increases in juror pay or demanded that county employee’s benefits be cut. Walker responded that he is opposed to tax hikes and that jury pay is set by the state court system, which is out of his control.
As for employee benefits, he pointed to his work get concessions on benefit packages, including a $30 increase by employees toward their health insurance premiums. To date, all non-union employee and two unions have agreed to concessions with the remaining unions still negotiating the proposal.
Before taking questions, Walker explained that his goals as county executive are decreasing the property tax levy, maintaining a commitment to essential services (health and human services, public works and public safety) and to address the structural deficit in the budget.
That structural deficit will be $45 million for 2011, according to Walker, with no changes in services or staff, no furloughs and no new services. Instead, natural increases in employee and retiree health benefits, fixed costs and reductions in state and federal aid lead to structural deficits, which in turn lead to cuts in programming, non-essential services and employees.
Walker said he is working to meet his goals but added that the low-hanging fruit he has trimmed from county government is gone. However, he continued in his promise to hold taxes down and maintain essential services.
Can he do it? What do you think Walker’s priorities should be for the 2011 budget? Holding property taxes down? Restoring and expanding transit? Continuing privatization efforts? Sound off now.