Necessity vs. Luxury in the Milwaukee County budget
The last time we left the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, they had added more than $7.4 million in spending to County Executive Scott Walker’s 2011 budget, which had originally reduced the tax levy by $1 million from 2010.
The board borrowed $11 million to reopen an indoor pool on 22nd and Burleigh and to repair both Pulaski and Noyes pools, even though it violated a borrowing freeze it imposed on itself just last year. They added $139,000 to the budget to maintain the county’s fish hatchery. They added $250,000 to fund a universal screening program to determine the proper placement of those criminal suspects: the county jail or in the community.
They added funds to repair the HVAC systems at the Kosciuszko and King community centers. They added $1 million to the contingency fund, to cover employee concessions that may be denied by an arbitrator. They added $125,000 to continue an employment task force for men of color.
As is the process with the county executive form of governmental budgeting, Walker proposed and the board offered a counter-proposal. Walker vetoed 15 items from the board’s budget, restoring most of his original proposal and removing the pool spending and fish hatchery, leaving the board to find 13 supervisors to override the executive’s move.
Last week, the board did just that, overriding 11 of Walker’s 15 vetoes. So long, Mr. Walker. Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.
Supervisors returned $5 million in borrowing for that long-closed pool. They restored the fish hatchery, the screening program, the contingency money, $40,000 to study whether to move South Shore Beach, and overturned Walker’s request for a pay freeze.
County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, who will become the next executive on Dec. 29, said the board’s changes to Walker’s employee compensation package will make obtaining concession much easier.
“It’s clear that, after a long and difficult budget adoption meeting last week, the County Board came together in overriding more than two-thirds of Walker’s vetoes,” he said. “We believe this is a more achievable package to secure true wage and benefit reform. The wage and benefit concessions included in (Walker’s) recommended budget were not thought out as part of a long-term labor negotiation strategy and actually set up the County for failure in arbitration or in court. Our taxpayers cannot afford that, so the Board had to step up and make these responsible changes.”
In the end, the 2011 property tax levy will increase 2.389 percent over 2010, increasing the average Milwaukee homeowner’s tax bill by $7.49.
I agree with the board that basing a budget on non-negotiated contract concessions is a big gamble, and one that taxpayers can’t afford. The accounting tricks employed by Walker for the past eight budgets have put Milwaukee County on the brink of bankruptcy and legal peril. The board got it right by increasing the contributions made by employees toward their benefits and tossing them a bone with a small pay raise to offset the pain.
It gives future negotiations with county unions a starting chance, and gives taxpayers a possible chance at real reforms in our public employee’s compensation package.
But the board may have overreached on discretionary items in this budget. Do we really need to reopen an indoor swimming pool that has been shuttered since 2001? Do we really need to run a fish hatchery, when no other county in the state has one? And do we need to have a task force specifically for men of color when there are thousands of people in our community in need of work and job skills — especially when the Task Force on Work Reform and Men of Color has not submitted any type of plan or report during the three years it has been in existence.
Instead, they should have stuck to the county’s needs and not its “wants” — just as their constituents have been doing during this economic crisis. Restoring bus service to under-served communities is a necessity. But adding $5 million to the credit card bill for a pool that hasn’t been used in nine years is a luxury we just can’t afford.