The Extraordinary Fiscal Liberalism of David Clarke
It’s difficult to find anyone who increases his budget faster than Sheriff Clarke.
Let us begin with candidate David Clarke, the fiscal conservative running for reelection in October 2010:
“I have balanced every budget I’ve been given,” Clarke told Third Coast Daily, “because of my elimination of duplicate services and my focus on reducing costs while increasing safety. I have instituted a mindset of efficiency into this organization. I’ve done more without receiving more. It’s not about having more resources; it’s about being more determined”
Let us now contrast that to Sheriff David Clarke, the fiscal liberal who is forever spending more than he was budgeted. He busted his budget by nearly $6 million in 2010 and 2011, and by about $1.4 million in 2013, he is on pace to run a $4.6 million deficit this year and he has just threatened to sue the county if he doesn’t get more money.
What’s remarkable about these overruns is that Clarke already had so much money to work with even before he busted the budgets. As I’ve previously written, the sheriff’s budget was something of a sacred cow under former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, rising by 61 percent from 2001 to 2011, or about twice as fast as inflation.
Current County Exec Chris Abele has tried to reduce the sheriff’s budget, but Clarke has enlisted the county board to override some of these cuts or has simply run deficits.
During this same period, figures from Milwaukee County show, the tax levy for Clarke’s budget rose by 33.5 percent, or more than three times faster than the rate of inflation. Given that his department accounts for almost half the county tax levy, the county’s 7.2 percent growth during this period was largely driven by the Sheriff’s budget.
Meanwhile, again during this same period, spending on law enforcement for the 72 counties in Wisconsin rose by 24 percent, as reported to the state Department of Revenue. That figure, however, would be a good deal lower if you removed the Milwaukee County numbers.
The remarkable thing about Clarke’s ever-ballooning budget is that he runs the only county that is fully incorporated, where municipal police departments together patrol the entire county. In a typical year, as I’ve previously reported, the sheriff’s department handles about one-fifth of one percent of all crimes in the county.
Needless to say, if the city or county or schools budget had risen as fast as Clarke’s, conservative critics and talk radio would be screaming bloody murder. But Clarke continues to get their support, even as he advances the most bizarre legal theories to justify his profligate spending.
Clarke has in the past suggested that as an independently-elected constitutional officer, he has the right to determine how much money his office needs. The mind reels to contemplate just how much higher the budget would go if he ever gained such freedom.
Yet Clarke’s subordinate, sheriff’s Inspector Edward Bailey argued that the County Board “must fund the (sheriff’s) office sufficiently to meet state mandates and provide law enforcement.” And Clarke has threatened to sue the county to force it to give him more funding. This is fiscal liberalism on steroids.
No other county faces this continuing drama between the sheriff and the county government. “I don’t think we see a lot of that,” says Kyle Christianson of the Wisconsin Counties Association. “Typically the county board sets the budget for the sheriff.
In his five page letter, Clarke offers some details as to the fiscal challenge he faces. But every county department must struggle to meet its budget. Indeed, these departments have had to struggle all the harder because so much of the total budget goes to the Sheriff.
Abele has twice proposed a budget that would save the taxpayers money by having municipal police patrol the parks, and Clarke has reacted like a petulant child, with derogatory remarks and a charge that Abele suffers from “penis envy.” Meanwhile not one of the 19 municipalities or their police departments came to Clarke’s defense. They obviously didn’t feel the parks patrol by Sheriff’s deputies was needed.
Abele, County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb and Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Roy Felber have all questioned why the sheriff added deputies to all courthouse entrances, which also are staffed by security guards. Supervisor Mark Borkowski accused Clarke of doing this to make the point that Abele cut the sheriff’s budget too deeply. And we the taxpayers are paying for Clarke to make this point. After all, it’s only money.