Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The High Cost of the County Board

We could save millions and improve efficiency by cutting the county board and its huge staff.

By - Nov 14th, 2012 12:04 pm

Back in 1989 I did a feature story on Milwaukee county government. I was stunned by what I encountered. Though its 25 county supervisors drew a full-time salary, nearly half worked part-time. There simply wasn’t enough work for so many board members, so they spent much of their time on micro-managing county departments or petty squabbles with each other.

Milwaukee made a token effort to reduce the size of the board, but its 18 members are still far in excess of the average county board nationally, which has about six members.  In 2006, I analyzed data from the National Association of Counties which showed that fully 10 percent of all board members in America were located in just one state: Wisconsin. No state had more total board members. Even huge states like New York and California had fewer county supervisors than Wisconsin.

But no county in this state comes close to Milwaukee in taxpayer dollars devoted to the county board. The annual budget for Racine’s county board, counting its 21 supervisors and all staff who serve the board, is $417,000. The annual budget for Dane County, with its 37 county board members and 4.75 full-time staffers, is $873,000. The annual bill for Milwaukee’s 18 supervisors and 56 staff members who serve the board: $6.5 million.

Milwaukee County is twice the size of Dane County but spends seven times more for its county board. Milwaukee County is five times bigger than Racine’s but spends 16 times more on its county board.

It was F. Thomas Ament who came up with the idea of turning Milwaukee’s supervisors into full-time positions, back in the late 1970s, when he served as board chair. It was based on an exalted idea of what most county supervisors actually did, and as a county executive, Ament would up the rewards preposterously, pushing through the infamous pension sweetener, with its lavish backdrop, that would have given him a $2 million pension had he served as long as planned.

The pension scandal won national attention as a prime example of government benefits run amok, and has left the county with a ruinous structural deficit the Public Policy Forum has warned will continue to grow worse.

You can’t blame current board members for this situation. But you can ask what they are doing about it. The willingness of the board to grab money from the county’s already paltry reserves suggests there’s little concern about the dire long-term financial situation. And the supervisors’ emphasis on preserving health care benefits above all other items in the budget is more than a little suspicious, as they stand to personally benefit from this. It exemplifies the decades-old courthouse style, where officials worry first and foremost about the benefits that go to them and their friends and relatives on the county payroll. This is the mentality that created lifetime health insurance (unique among the 72 counties), lavish pensions (ditto), and all the other benefits that have left county taxpayers with legacy costs that far exceed those of the other 71 counties.

Faced with calls for the board to reduce its size (a dozen Milwaukee suburbs passed referendums calling for this by overwhelming margins), the board cut one position, dropping from 19 to 18, and appeared to do that only to get rid of a supervisor, Joe Rice, who had long argued board members should be paid a part-time salary.

County Executive Chris Abele

County Executive Chris Abele

Meanwhile, we have the usual bickering between board members and County Executive Chris Abele, who complains the board has “crept into management of departments, rather than policymaking.” But there is nothing new about this. Executives and department managers have complained about this problem for decades. This jockeying for power goes all the way back to 1960, when the position of the state’s first county executive was created. At its core is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of county government.

Both Abele and County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic refer to the county board as the legislative branch, to distinguish it from the executive. That is complete nonsense. County board members don’t make legislation, they manage county departments; that’s why they are called county supervisors.

What many people (including, I suspect, some board members) don’t understand is that county government is an administrative arm of state government: it serves as local administrator of state programs, like the courts, the jails and policing state highways. It has no power whatsoever other than what the state deigns to give it. (By contrast, city governments have all power except that which is denied them by the legislature.)

When you look at upcoming issues for the state legislature they involve policymaking for the entire state: issues like the mining bill or the venture capital bill. When you look at the county budget discussions, it’s all about managing county departments: patrol of county parks, county employees health insurance, changes in the county transit system.

For most of Milwaukee County’s history, the board managed the departments. The addition of the county executive simply created duplication, two levels of managers. That’s why county officials bicker so much: because they essentially do the same thing and there are no clear rules for where the respective duties of executive and board begin and end.

Dimitrijevic says the board operates as “a check and balance” to the executive.  It’s a lofty-sounding reference to how America’s executive, legislative and judicial branches, all with distinctly different roles, check and balance each other. But the county structure doesn’t do this: it simply provides a system of duplication. Thus, when Abele worked to develop the 44 story downtown tower, the board erupted and wanted to redo the whole thing. When Abele worked with every municipality in the county to create a new and cheaper way to handle patrol of the parks and eliminate duplication between governments, the board simply threw it out (with no discussion with these municipalities) and gave parks patrol back to the sheriff. Almost every major proposal in Abele’s budget was thrown out. That’s not a check and balance, that’s a redo of the budget.

The situation has grown worse because Dimitrijevic seems very anxious to expand her power. Some observers were shocked when she made Mayor Tom Barrett cool his heels and wait for some ten other folks to speak at a recent public county budget hearing. The normal procedure is to let a dignitary like this speak first. Was this because Barrett happens to be friendly with Abele and worked with him on the parks patrol proposal? “That’s just not done,” one Democrat told me. “She’s behaving royally. It’s bad for Milwaukee County, bad for local Democrats.”

Dimitrijevic pushed — unsuccessfully — to become a member of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council of Milwaukee County, which would have made her the only non-executive member of the body and added yet more duplication of Milwaukee’s executive and board chair. Dimitrijevic and the board have added what the county exec’s office calls a “slush fund” of $50,000 for future legal expenses for the board. But the county has a corporation counsel designated by state law to handle legal affairs; why more duplication?  Dimitrijevic and the board refuse to give up their control of all county lobbyists; in any other government in Wisconsin they report to the executive. Worse, the board has now passed a provision that would forbid the executive —  the highest ranking county official and the only one who represents more than one-eighteenth of the county’s voters — from lobbying the state legislature.

The provision is absurd. The legislature is not going to refuse to hear from the state’s top county official. What the board seems worried about is whether Abele — who successfully lobbied the legislature to create the position of county comptroller — might push for a reduction in the size of the board.

And Abele doesn’t exactly rule this out. “This is the only board in the state that is full time, but that’s probably the wrong metric,” he says. It’s more about the entire budget devoted to the board, he adds.

“If Milwaukee County was consistently having balanced budgets and didn’t face these huge deficits, no one would care about the size of the county board,” Abele says. “It’s more about getting a system that works.”

But given the massive cuts that have been required in the county parks, the transit system and other services, a reduction in the uniquely high costs of Milwaukee’s county board would help greatly. Instead, the board has pushed for an increase in the county sales tax.

The tension between the board and Abele has been portrayed in the media as a dispute between personalities, just as it was between former board chair Lee Holloway and executive Scott Walker, and between former board chair Robert Jackson and executive Tom Ament. I think that’s completely misleading.

Dimtirjevic and Abele actually meet every two weeks and both say the meetings have been cooperative and constructive. Abele says “there are many good hearted and well-intentioned people on the county board.” This is not about a clash of personalities, it’s about a duplicative (and wasteful) system that has guaranteed power battles since the first county executive took office.

How should the duplication be ended? “I think the question should be do we need a county executive,” says Dimitrijevic.

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that the county exec is elected by and serves the entire county; the board chair, like all supervisors, serves a tiny minority of county voters. I suspect if you polled the citizenry, they would prefer to keep the exec, and the recent referendums certainly show they support cuts in the size of the board.

Some kind of reform is long overdue. I hope Abele pursues the issue with the legislature. For too long, we Milwaukee taxpayers have been overcharged — and over-entertained — by our dysfunctional county government.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

28 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The High Cost of the County Board”

  1. Glen Copper says:

    There are nineteen municipalities in Milwaukee County, one of which eclipses all the others in population and area. If anything there should be more supervisors. the superfluous position is the elected county executive. We did just fine without one for more than a century. Let the Supervisors appoint and elect their Board Chair and department appointments. The roll of supervisor per se could be a part time job. Being a supervisor that also chairs a department of county government should be compensated according to how much time those additional duties require.

  2. getch says:

    @Glen, not sure if you read the article, but much bigger cities get along with far fewer supervisors. If you propose more supervisors, then would agree they should be part time? It seems like when a board passes a ordinance to raise chickens plus numerous other rules, they have to much time on their hands.

  3. JPK says:

    I think there may be some inaccuracies here. The County Board of Supervisors does indeed serve a legislative function in creating/amending County resolutions and ordinances — it is the County’s legislative branch (that is not “nonsense”).

    Moreover, all counties are now required by state statute to have some kind of executive authority. The county executive has unique (and clearly specified) powers not shared with the legislative branch, including administration of departments. County Boards can still conduct ex post oversight of department activities; however, to say they share responsibility of managing day-to-day departmental activities with the CE is not accurate.

    Might help to review this primer from the WCA and WI Chapter 59:

  4. Bruce Murphy says:

    To JPK: You are technically correct. Yes the county board passes resolutions and ordinances but they are largely involved with running county departments. And most of their committee hearings are about overseeing (and often nitpicking) departments. Any legislation on state matters is handled by state legislature; on municipal matters (at least in Milwaukee County which is fully incorporated) by municipalities. That doesn’t leave much for the county “legislature” but overseeing departments, as their title of supervisor suggests. And yes there are some separate powers for exec, but the board has periodically strayed into this area: they supervise the lobbyists, the disadvantaged business contracts, etc. End result: the lines between board and exec aren’t very clear and never have been, which is why there has been constant conflict, no matter who are the personalities involved.

  5. James says:

    Bruce-more like you are technically wrong. A major premise of your article is patently false: that the county board serves no legislative purpose. I agree with a number of your other positions, but this portion was just poor reporting.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @getch “It seems like when a board passes a ordinance to raise chickens plus numerous other rules, they have to much time on their hands.” Just to be clear the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has not passed any such ordinance (I don’t think they could). Wauwatosa and the City of Milwaukee have done this, but it wasn’t about having too much time on their hands. Citizens pushed to get this accomplished. In fact it was the council responding to the people.

  7. Stacy Moss says:

    Dear James,

    You shouldn’t be so quick to accuse anyone of poor reporting. Sometimes you can get all the facts right and miss the story. I find it hard to imagine reasonable people considering all the facts would not conclude Mr. Murphy’s main point is well taken.

    Can anyone show an example when this large board saved the day, you know, did something important that would not have been accomplished by a smaller committee. The County Board is larger than the design team for the Apple Iphone.


    PS. Bruce Murphy, I am always surprised by how long your knowledge of stuff goes back. How old are you? Aren’t bloggers just supposed to deal with the present? 🙂

  8. Sharon Schmeling says:

    Bruce, interesting column. The majority of counties in WI have large boards and use a per meeting pay system. It’s a potent combination for keeping government clean and efficient. Here’s why: County board members only get paid if they attend meetings for committees to which they are appointed. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Bigger boards also have fewer constituents per member and fewer committee meetings for each member to attend because there are more members to share the load. This means people of all ages and incomes can serve — not just the retired or rich or those with employers who allow board work on company time. Big boards are also harder for special interests to highjack with election contributions since there are just too many people to finance. On smaller boards, it’s easier to get a majority vote to pass things — like pay increases for board members or goodies for the special interests that financed their election campaigns! Jefferson County did a report on board size that illustrates these challenges. It’s a

  9. Sam says:

    Stacy: “Can anyone show an example when this large board saved the day, you know, did something important that would not have been accomplished by a smaller committee. The County Board is larger than the design team for the Apple Iphone.”

    I would say that the fact that we have a board size that doesn’t completely disenfranchise citizens from getting involved in the process is important. And I find the comparison of our representative democracy to the IPhone kind of insulting. It’s pretty pathetic if we’ve actually gotten to the point in this country where IPhones are more important than democracy. Look at a county like LA, where the small size of the board means that you basically have to be rich enough to buy a seat to get elected. I think it would be pretty reasonable to expect the same thing to happen here. Any coincidence that it’s the people with money (Abele, suburban interests) that are interested in shrinking the board?

  10. Bruce Murphy says:

    Note to Sam: I live in the city and I think if you had a referendum in the city, voters would support cutting back county board. If the concern is representation, the other option is to make the county supervisors part-time, as they are in Wisconsin’s other 71 counties, and in most counties in America. Less money spent on duplicative government means more money for the transit system, the parks and other important services.

  11. Jeff Martinka says:

    Imagine the County Board $$ saved going into Milwaukee County Parks Dept facilities and programming….sigh….

  12. Jesse Hagen says:

    I can’t comprehend the idea that full-time vs part-time supervisors somehow amount to more democracy. Whatever is going on with the county board isn’t democracy, it’s self-preservation.

  13. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Outstanding article. Kind of makes my blood boil. I don’t usually sympathize with republicans, but THIS IS a major reason why people move to Waukesha and become GOP supporters. It’s a totally self-inflected tragedy that hurts the city and drives suburban sprawl. Bad, bad, bad.

    Does anyone have any suggested solutions?

  14. chili says:

    The answer is not a smaller, part-time board. It’s a smaller FULL-TIME board. Funny that Bruce Murphy, father of the outing of the pension scandal, would be advocating for less oversight of public funds. The pension scheme may have been the idea of county officials who didnt have the best public intentions,but it was facilitated by a County Board that was part-time and dis-engaged. The solution is a board of 7 or 9 members who are paid full time, with staff who can do a capable job of providing quality oversight and giving broad, long-term direction to the exec on where the county should be headed. In this way you can still save millions, but you dont compromise the very important role of overseeing billions of dollars in public funds

  15. Bruce Murphy says:

    Chili, thanks for your thoughtful comment. (and all these comments). A couple things: the pension scheme wasn’t just passed by disengaged board members. Many knew this was a generous sweetener for employees and knew it was better for veterans. Over the years there have been part-time supervisors who were more on top of the issues than those in the courthouse full time.

    The other thing is we now have a county comptroller (thanks to Abele and over the opposition of the board) that is independently elected and could immediately weigh in on something like the pension scheme. That’s what happens at the city with its comptroller. I think a part-time board could work, though you’d need the board chair to earn more.

  16. Eliminate the County Board and Executive Completely and place it under the state.

    Wis. Conservative Digest

  17. A very thoughtful analysis. This points up a problem not limited to the county board: urban boards tend to worry more about the welfare of insiders than the citizens they are supposed to serve. There is this inherent conflict of interest because the insiders have the time and interest to concentrate on what the boards are doing, while ordinary citizens have many other things to worry about.

    Someone who figures out how to reduce this conflict of interest will do a huge favor to all of us who care about the future of cities.

  18. Bill Sell says:

    Bruce, I do believe you are missing (not intentionally) some facts that make Wisconsin different.

    Representation means Access, a truism that would apply anywhere. I am on a first name basis with my Super because he does not have to represent twice as many citizens that a smaller board would. And access helps keep the process honest. My rep is doing honest work for his salary; and it is not the work of a meddler. He spends time with us. He appeals to neighbors to build “Friends of the Park” efforts – a serendipitous antidote to our budget crunches.

    Wisconsin citizens work under a serious lack of representative government. Witness that four years ago we solved the parks and transit funding question in a victorious referendum that needs support from, but has been ignored by both current and previous governors, Madison (both parties, both legislative sessions – 2009 and 2011), but it has not been ignored by the County Board who are forbidden to implement tax reform.

    Furthermore, many states have recognized Regions and have knocked heads together to get counties to work together. In Wisconsin it’s against the law for local governments to form a Regional authorities. As for your appeal for a smaller board? Get in line; the voters spoke first.

  19. Frank says:

    One solution is to replace county supervisors with mayors from all the municipalities from within the county. The county supervisor position apparently is a part time job that wouldn’t take much effort for all the mayors to accomplish. Plus there would be better representation for all constituents.

  20. Annie says:

    Bruce, how much does the size of the County Board contribute to the problems outlined? How much would a reduction in board size contribute to solving these issues? Also, can you give any insight on the amount of power the county board chair has over his/her fellow elected supervisors? It seems to be distinct from the role of the common council president, for example.

  21. Remember it is not the size of the boaard, it is what they do. The larger you make the districts, the more they depend on special interests to get money to get elected and then they owe them.

  22. Stacy Moss says:

    Dear Sam,

    I think you misunderstood me. “It’s pretty pathetic if we’ve actually gotten to the point in this country where IPhones are more important than democracy.”

    My point is that the iphone works, that a larger group does not always do better than a smaller one.

    With today’s technology we could get rid of our representative form of government and have citizens vote on everything. If bigger is better, then this would great, no?

    Why don’t you buttress you argument with one real world example where 18 representatives saved the day, averted disaster? The large Board went along with the pensions, right. Just one example. I suggest you become part of the reality based community.

    One last point…… “Look at a county like LA, where the small size of the board means that you basically have to be rich enough to buy a seat to get elected.” Really? I don’t think so. The Board of the Art Museum is much more likely.

  23. Sam says:

    I think there are a lot of examples where a larger, more representative board has “saved the day”, whatever that means. Look at Bill Sell’s example: Sup. Haas works more than full time to make sure the needs of his constituents are addressed and met, as well as making sure that transit doesn’t get forgotten in the county budget. Sup. Dimitrijevic has exponentially increased the amount of community listening sessions and outreach work that was previously done under the board. Sup. Bowen pushed hard for his primarily low-income constituents’ access to recreational opportunities like the Moody Pool which Abele (who of course never has to worry about that sort of petty detail in people’s lives) cut from the budget. Sup. Broderick has consistently fought for improvement for parks for years. I think it’s pretty ridiculous to blame the current county board for the pension scandal when the vast majority weren’t in office at the time. I hope that those are enough examples for your so-called “reality-based” community.

    As far as the example from LA goes, have you ever been to, or lived in LA? Their supervisory districts are so large that elections become so expensive that only one new person has been elected to their Board since 1996, and they only have one latino-majority district in a latino-majority county. They call them the “five little kings”.

    Bruce Murphy:
    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the will of the voters (at least until some sort of referendum is done. I personally think it says a lot that the people who are really pushing shrinking the board (the GMC, suburban interests, business leaders who primarily don’t live in the county) are the same people who don’t support most of the vital county functions (welfare, health, parks, transit) and also don’t represent the income or racial diversity of the county. Why wouldn’t you be for a smaller board if it meant it was easier to push your agenda?

  24. Bruce Murphy says:

    Sam, Abele worked with Bowen on a solution to Moody Pool, and the solution was approved by the board. As to the suburbs, they are not a monolithic group, and if they opposed core county functions then the supervisors who represent them would oppose them. They voted for a smaller board, not for less county services.

  25. Stacy Moss says:

    small, like me, can be beautiful.

  26. John says:

    I never thought that Bruce Murphy would carry water for anyone, but he seems to be running interference for Abele.

  27. Bill Sell says:

    I get an uneasy feeling about our attitude toward governance when a “solution” is to diminish representative government. I’ve heard the cry for a leader like Abele, who makes the tough decisions and doesn’t explain them to the voters. There are people (not here of course) who like that kind of leader. In a democracy, however, a tough leader may be efficient but might not be responsive to the perceptions of the voters. It’s important for a leader (tough guy or facilitator) to campaign on his/her plans and let the voter weigh in. Who would have thought that Sue Black would be fired? And Frank Busalacchi (we’re not sure “fired” is correct, but it was abrupt and unexpected), — after a campaign that suggested nothing of the sort. If Abele were more politically savvy he would understand this dynamic and draw in the voters; instead he drives me to trust my Supervisor the more.

    I am not arguing against Abele, but I use these actions as examples of what some voters seem to want, a czar, not an executive. Nevertheless, there is one excellent reason to reduce the size of the County Board, and that would be to establish a representative Regional governance, where we could collaborate with the many municipalities of SE Wisconsin counties. The need for regional is quite a bit more obvious than simply laying off a few Supers.

    Finally, I find myself the odd man out, agreeing with “Wis Conservative Digest” here: The fewer the reps, the higher the price of winning an election – we could be throwing our democracy to the winds of Citizens United.

  28. Both the dispute on the county level and the responses to the article seem to me to illustrate the clash between process-oriented people and results-oriented people.

    Let me illustrate the difference from my experience on the Milwaukee school board. When a recommendation would come forward to adopt a particular text or program, I would ask for the background to support the recommendation. What I hoped for was a discussion of research or pilot programs comparing the recommendation with the alternatives. How did the recommendation affect student learning.

    Instead, what I usually got was a listing of all the groups and individuals who had been consulted and all the meetings that were held. I found this very frustrating.

    It appears to me that what we are seeing here is the clash between a results-oriented county exec and a process-oriented board.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us