David Clarke the False Conservative
Sheriff Clarke claims the right to spend as much as he wants, while the media ignores this and simply reports on his rants.
By now the media knows they need merely feed Sheriff David Clarke some item to stoke his rage and he will go into his attack mode. No one knows that better than Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze, and he’s now succeeded in creating a huge controversy, what has now been described as a “war of words” between Clarke and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
But as far as I can tell, there is little controversy here and no war of words. This is a dispute manufactured by the media.
It was back on September 25 that Abele gave his annual budget speech. There was no red meat in Schultze’s story about this, nothing for Clarke to get mad about it, just a routine rundown of the budget’s major points
Indeed, Abele’s office issued a detailed, 19-page rundown of the sheriff’s budget, laying everything out in excruciating detail. There is some fascinating stuff in the budget (more about that later), but the bottom line is little change. At first glance it appears the sheriff’s budget has been cut by $7.7 million but if you read the fine print you see that $5.4 million of this represents the fact that the sheriff, by agreement of Abele and the county board, no longer runs the House of Correction, and he also no longer oversees emergency preparedness and the 911 system, something Clarke is not interested in running.
All told, Abele’s office notes, the Sheriff’s budget has been cut by $1.6 million, or just 2.3 percent. “The Sheriff’s budget would still account for 22% of the tax levy, so of every dollar we get from homeowners, 22 cents goes to Sheriff,” Abele’s spokesperson Brendan Conway notes.
Schultze ignored all that and published a story claiming the sheriff’s budget had been cut by $12 million, with no explanation of where he got this number, or any reaction from Abele. Nor did he explain the budgetary impact of the switch in the House of Corrections and other duties. Then he got a comment from Clarke. It was a dandy.
Abele response was, yawn, “it’s unfortunate the sheriff, instead of engaging in thoughtful civil discourse, is making personal attacks and making light of a serious problem in our community and state.”
That prompted TMJ4 to declare there was a “war of words” between Clarke and Abele. That’s sort of like describing a Nazi blitzkrieg against a dozing French farmer as a battle royal. Nothing in the TV news account indicated that Abele had issued a wonky, 19 page document detailing every jot and tittle of the sheriff’s budget.
Clarke offered no substantive reply to Abele’s budget, he just launched into a yet another ad hominem attack. Among his previous rants, he accused Abele of “penis envy.” Clarke has become the boy who cried wolf, but the press is still breathlessly reporting his ever-escalating declarations.
Meanwhile, for those who care to examine the proposed Sheriff’s budget, the document does offer some interesting information, with a detained run-down of 11 different functions performed by the Sheriff’s department.
My favorite is the section on criminal investigations, which notes that the Sheriff’s deputies investigated just 311 crimes in 2012 yet had 23.4 officers assigned to this duty. The document notes that each officer handled an average of 9.1 cases versus 57.2 cases per officer in the West Allis Police Department and 51 cases per officer in the Wauwatosa Police Department. Abele proposed cutting staff devoted to this function nearly in half, from 23.4 to 12.4, “based on data that consistently shows… few felony investigations or convictions, and lower than average caseload per officer, as would be expected in a fully incorporated county” — meaning one where local police departments patrol every square foot of the county.
Abele proposes to allocate these officers to other functions within the sheriff’s department. Clarke is free to ignore this and assign officers as he sees fit. But the budget document does raise many questions about how Clarke runs things. It also begins to provide baseline performance data that begins to measure how much is actually accomplished by officers in various parts of the sheriff’s department. Abele has done the same for every county department, which is major change compared to past county leaders. The difference is that other department heads report to him, whereas Clarke is independently elected and can organize his department as he likes.
As he did last year, Abele has also proposed to have local police departments take over the patrol of the lakefront and county parks. The budget document notes that local police are closer to the parks and more familiar with the surrounding neighborhoods, “which is more efficient than utilizing Sheriff’s Deputies that drive from park to park from disparate locations.” It also notes that some local police departments (notably, Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and West Allis, the three biggest) are willing to sign service agreements with the county to patrol their parks at a cost of $10,000 per municipality.
As for having Milwaukee police patrol the lakefront, this “will reduce taxpayer costs by providing a seamless, integrated patrol force in the lakefront parks and in the neighborhoods west of the parks, where MPD must currently keep officers in reserve because the Sheriff often closes the lakefront on extremely short notice and pushes crowds into these areas,” Abele’s document explains.
The budget document shows that Clarke allocated 28 full-time officers to parks patrol yet reported that just 21.4 person hours per day were assigned to this duty. That’s less than 8,000 hours a year by 29 officers whose hours of work should total in the neighborhood of 55,000 officers. No, that’s not much parks patrol, and yes, way too many officers are assigned to this duty. It provides a strong rationale for the switch to local police, something the county board rejected last year.
So yes, there are some potentially controversial issues in this budget document, but the media largely ignored these. And yes Abele has scrutinized Clarke’s budget (along with that of every other county department) since becoming county exec.
If you’re a numbers-crunching fiscal conservative like Abele, one obvious place to look for cuts is the Sheriff’s Department. In the decade prior to Abele’s election, the sheriff’s budget had risen 61 percent, far faster than any other county department. It was something of a sacred cow under former county exec Scott Walker, rising steadily while the parks budget stayed flat at 0 percent and county transit declined by 8 percent.
The ironic thing is that Clarke claims to be a conservative and he’s at odds with a fiscal conservative. Clarke’s final 2012 budget spent $4.3 million in overtime, increasing total expenditures to $77.7 million. Yet Clarke essentially declares that as a constitutional officer, he can spend whatever he wants. He’s doesn’t just reject (without explanation) Abele’s detailed run-down of how the department might be more efficiently run, but threatens that Abele will “have to sue me in court” to force Clarke to accept any budget cut. His making this claim, moreover, about a budget that barely cuts overall funding for the sheriff.
Call me a wonk, but I think the fact that Clarke claims the right to spend whatever he wants of the taxpayers money is of considerably more importance than whether he thinks Abele is a little man or has penis envy. This is not Reality TV, but a policy issue with large ramifications for taxpayers. Maybe it’s time the media reported it that way.