Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Abele Faces Attack on Free Bus Rides

Though his challenger for county exec, Chris Larson, is undecided on issue, it could still impact the race.

By - Nov 4th, 2015 12:29 pm
Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Two days ago the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the new county bus program providing free rides for seniors and the disabled faces a budget shortfall. It wasn’t exactly a news flash: Urban Milwaukee writer Graham Kilmer reported this a month ago.  Indeed, my colleague Jeramey Jannene did an in-depth story way back in November 2014 predicting the program was likely to create a shortfall of at least $1 million.  But the Journal Sentinel continues to pretend we don’t exist and therefore didn’t credit us for first reporting the issue.

The Go Pass providing these free rides also looked like it could be a key issue in the race for Milwaukee County Executive between Chris and Chris: incumbent Chris Abele and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson. In an interview with me not long after launching his campaign, Larson had blasted Abele on a long list of issues, including criticizing the county exec for being opposed to helping seniors and the disabled. But Larson has now clarified that is actually undecided, neither for nor against the Go Pass program. “I have heard concerns on both sides of the issue,” Larson says. “I will review the program when I take office.” That potentially puts Larson at odds with his old colleagues on the county board, who continue to blast Abele on the issue.

Back in November 2014, as Jannene reported, the county board slipped a last-minute amendment into the budget to provide free bus rides to seniors and those with disabilities. They already benefited from half-priced fares, but board members wanted to cut that to zero. As supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, who was then board chairwoman explains it, “my vision is clear: make transit as accessible and affordable to as many people as possible, especially those on a fixed income such as people with disabilities and seniors who also tend to have transportation challenges.”

The curious thing, however, is that free rides hadn’t been requested by groups representing seniors. In fact the county commission on aging wrote a letter opposing the idea, saying “seniors in our community have never asked for free, charitable bus service… Seniors in Milwaukee have many needs, but free bus service is not one of them…It is deeply disappointing that no one on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging (and its committees and workgroups) was consulted about this proposal.”

Abele opposed the proposal, saying people needed to contact their county supervisor to have them vote against free transit rides. “We already have a discount program for seniors as we should,” he told Channel 58.

Even if Larson doesn’t attack Abele in the campaign on this issue, it seems clear that county board members will. As current county board chair Theo Lipscomb says, “Abele has plenty of highly paid advisors, their job is to paint him as a Democrat even while he opposes services for the elderly and disabled. ”

Abele says “my concern is sustainability because we now get less state aid for transit than we did five years ago. If the GO Pass continues to lose revenue, it will be much harder to keep this going. Our moral responsibility is first to the thousands of riders who use the system. I don’t want to risk being able to get people to work and to school every day.”

As Jannene reported in 2014, the county board had allocated $822,600 in funding for the GO Pass program in 2015, even though figures provided by the transit system estimated that senior riders paid some $4.2 million (through the $1.10 fare) in the prior year, which would suggest the program could overrun its budget by as much as $3.3 million.

The program began this past April, after the board overrode Abele’s veto of it. In late September we reported the program had provided over two million rides in its first 25 weeks. If all those riders had previously paid $1.10 per ride, that’s a loss of $2.2 million in ticket revenue since the program started. That put the GO Pass program with a budget shortfall of about $1.4 million with 15 weeks left in the year.

MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm provided updated figures to the board this week, saying the projected deficit for the GO Pass program by the end of March (and its first 12 months of operations) is likely to be $1.79 million. “Now that we’ve seen the shortfall is that big we have to do something about it,” Abele says.

To which Dimitrijevic offers this riposte: “It’s tough to trust the administration’s numbers as they are adamantly against the program. This is why the County Board adopted a budget amendment at the Finance Committee requesting the independent body, SEWRPC to analyze the impact of the GO Pass.”

But why would you go all the way to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission for an analysis when you have an independently elected county comptroller who could do this? Perhaps because the comptroller looked at this when the board first proposed the free rides and projected a cost of $1.7 million.

The issue is a classic illustration of Abele the pragmatic budget cutter versus a board that has routinely added spending to his budget each year.

“If we balance our bus fare revenues on the backs of the disabled and seniors then our values are way off,” says Dimitrijevic.

“I want a bus program that’s sustainable, not just this year but every year,” counters Abele.

Meantime, it’s not clear what will happen to the program after the April election, no matter who is elected. Larson won’t say what he will do, but he is to the left of Abele on most issues and might be expected to support the Go Pass. As for Abele, if he is truly against the Go Pass, asks Dimitrijevic, why is funding for GO Pass program included in his budget? Abele’s budget, in fact, provides funding for the program through the 2016 year, but his last attempt to veto the Go Pass program was easily voted down by the board, so this may be a pragmatic decision.

Which means that whichever candidate wins election, we don’t know where they stand on the Go Program after 2016. Abele, it seems, would cut the program if he could. And Larson?

“I believe transit should be affordable and expanding and we need dedicated funding to do that,” he says. As a supervisor, Larson successfully championed a county referendum approving an increase in the county sales tax to provide more funding for the county’s parks and transit system, something the state legislature (then with divided control by both parties) declined to approve. If anything the current, Republican-controlled legislature would be even more likely to reject the idea.

Larson suggests Abele has been moving toward him on the issues: “From community schools to living wage, seems any position we stake, Abele is tripping over himself to also take.” But his decision to punt on the Go Pass program after first criticizing Abele seems like a shift as well.

It’s a potent issue — because it’s so easily understood by the electorate — and likely to pop again in the county exec campaign.

Clarification: The original version of this story cast this issue as a classic example of the differences between Larson and Abele, but Larson’s campaign soon made it clear that he was undecided on the Go Pass program, though he at first supported it in our interview in mid-October. Thus the story was recast as you see here.

Short Take

The other candidate in the county executive election is Joseph Thomas Klein, the Wisconsin Pirate Party organizer. His position on the Go Pass program?

He notes that the Milwaukee County Transit System suffers from the fact that it has little support from the current majority in the state legislature. “MCTS is in need of a dedicated funding source, such as the before proposed additional sales tax,” he continues. “I would also like to see parking revenues from County-owned parking lots, street parking, and structures go into the transit budget. I would not be adverse to metering on Lincoln Memorial Drive (or in any park served by MCTS) if the revenue could make a summertime ‘Beach-Bus’ and Park service possible.”

“I like the GO Pass idea,” Klein says, “but perhaps it should have been better planned with a goal of minimizing erosion of fare-box revenue. The fact that the GO Pass has created a budget shortfall is more a function of poor planning and a lack of realistic budgeting by the County Board, than a condemnation of a program that should have innumerable social benefits.”

16 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Abele Faces Attack on Free Bus Rides”

  1. Sam says:

    To me this seems to be a great illustration of the quality of the Democratic party in Wisconsin right now (I vote Democrat). Agreeing with obvious mismanagement of a vital public resource is part of your platform? Next thing you know Larsen will be speaking the praises of the pension scandal to shore up his liberal bonafides.

    I get attacking from the left is your only play, but at least attack something that doesn’t illustrate sound governance. I know they are out there.

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:

    I like Abele but I don’t understand what the big deal is about not giving seniors a free ride? It’s not really a “loss” of money rather than money not earned in the first place. I have no problem with my tax dollars giving free rides to some people..

  3. Tim says:

    This is a timely issue to show the differences between these candidates. I’ll be watching to see how Larson explains his plan to pay for budget hole that the county board has created. I might have missed that detail from above; has anyone heard Larson’s plan to pay for this?

    External links welcomed.

  4. Ryan says:


    Larson has no plans o pay for it, he just wants the job and hates Abele. No county board member should be in any kind of elected office.

  5. Will says:

    “then our values are way off,” says Dimetrijevic

    Values lol. That Dimetrijevic is the Milwaukee Mother Theresa, no? The Milwaukee county board is so bad and Larson has been appointed their lapdog, apparently.

  6. Marie says:

    So despite politics over who requested this program, is it a worthy goal to encourage bus use by seniors? Could normalizing bus ridership possibly offer broader benefits in our car-centric metro area? Was this a pilot program?

    Maybe the number projections were off, but is this program really breaking the transit budget or is it more of a paper loss? I don’t have an answer, but I know there are often shell games for how things are financed. Chris Abele did not speak to the county comptroller or treasurer before committing $4 million a year for arena funding. Even his plan for somehow collecting more debt than the county already does was debunked by the comptroller.

  7. Michael says:

    So wait a second, Bruce. I know Abele and I’ll freely acknowledge that I’m a supporter but I’m trying to understand what makes you think he’s conservative.

    He’s got 20 plus years of significant and regular dem support, including the years he’s been in CEX office. And it’s hardly invisible, either. (read through all the categories)

    He’s a longtime and continuing supporter of Planned Parenthood, countless LGBT organizations, countless environmental organizations, arts groups, Boys & Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, etc

    He’s personally supported of ACLU’s recent work to fight Voter ID laws, etc.

    Since he’s been at the County, he’s budgeted support every year for Universal Screening (a program intended to keep more people out of the criminal justice system and into diversion and alternative sentencing programs) and I don’t need to tell you that that wasn’t happening before.

    He’s had the first five years in a row of never cutting transit routes or increasing fares (the first five year span without route cuts and fare increases in at least a decade).

    He’s increased funding by millions for mental health and is finally moving BHD towards community-based care, emergency room visits are finally declining, along with involuntary detentions, while they are serving 14% more people.

    For five years in a row they have been setting records and adding services through Child Support Services – more single parents getting checks, thousands more dads getting job training and job placement, peer counseling, license recovery etc. Child Support Services recently received a $10 MM grant over five years to expand even further this work, the only agency in the country to receive this grant and at the highest level it’s ever been made.

    He took over the House of Correction from the Sheriff and added skill certification programs, GEDs, interview training, partnership with the Hunger Task Force, work crews with Parks and HWY, automatic enrollment in ACA or Badgercare for eligible inmates when they process out, restarted Recycling Program, Print Shop, and Cafeteria (no more Nutriloaf). In partnership with MAWIB, the House was recently one of only ten recipients in the country of a Department of Labor grant to build a job training center in the House itself.

    He’s added funding in DA’s office for victim witness protection officers, community prosecutors, etc

    Disability Services no longer has a wait list

    Family Care has been expanded and now administers the program for eight counties, as opposed to just Milwaukee County as was the case five years ago.

    He has always been willing to try and curb the Sheriff’s bloated and ineffective spending and stand up to his accusations of being ‘soft on crime’, even when the board, for whatever reason, regularly restores that funding.

    He initiated a plan to end chronic homelessness throughout the county through permanent housing in three years.

    Has hired plenty of folks from Doyle and Kohl administration

    Bruce, is your contention that none of this qualifies him as a ‘big-hearted liberal’ because he also cares about sustainability? All of what is above is pretty easy to verify and I think he’s always been pretty clear that the reason he’s trying to make the county more sustainable is because he wants to keep restoring services. I consider myself a liberal and I also like balancing my budget, largely because I’d also like to be able to afford college for my kids. Does that make me a ‘tough conservative’?

    I get that you want to make some news and controversy and generate traffic for your site – which I genuinely like – but this seems more editorial in the vein of the frothy blogs that people come to Urban Milwaukee to get above.

    FYI on Larson –
    As dem senate chair removed Lena Taylor from Joint Finance leaving that committee without an african american representative (or even a member of the Milwaukee caucus) for the first time in about 30 years. After failing to raise much money and losing a senate seat for dems, he was replaced by his colleagues with Jennifer Shilling after one of the shortest tenures in that position.

    He also voted to repair the Estabrook Dam, a position opposed by just about every environmental group there is, the entire common council, and the entire board of MMSD.

    Big hearted liberal?

  8. Bruce Murphy says:

    Michael, I have no idea who you are and, whew, you have a lot to say. I would refer to an earlier column I did which noted Abele has been liberal on numerous issues:

    But on the one issue I’m writing about here — the Go Pass program — he is the fiscal conservative and Larson is the liberal.

    I would also note that Abele ran as a fiscal conservative in 2012. And while it is early in the 2016 race, there’s no doubt Larson will be running to the left of Abele. Beyond that, there’s much can be said, but there are five months in which to do so.

  9. Bill Kurtz says:

    Know them by their supporters: Chris Abele is the candidate in bed with right-wingers like Deanna Alexander and Joe Sanfelippo and the willing catspaw of the collar county Republican legislators issuing dictates to Milwaukee. And Chris Larson had good reason to remove Lena Taylor, who among other things voted for concealed carry and to keep Cathy Stepp, Scott Walker’s anti-environment DNR boss.

  10. Michael says:

    Affordable transportation for seniors is a good thing. But affordable does not mean free. Taking away funding from the bus system by making a class of riders free will only cause route and service cuts in the end, impacting those seniors ability very access to affordable transportation.

  11. Bruce Thompson says:

    I wonder if there is a confusion between “conservative” and “fiscally conservative.” Both liberals and conservatives can be fiscally conservative, if that means not being reckless with money and making sure one can pay for what one buys. For an example of non-fiscally conservative conservatives, one only has to look at the candidates for the OP nomination and their tax plans.

    Personally I would rather use the money to expand bus routes and get rid of the free tickets for seniors.

  12. Bill Sell says:

    The issues around the GoPass do not need to be as polarizing as they already seem to be.

    There likely is no financial urgency to provide free fares to most seniors who are employed. Those who are not employed could be encouraged to use relatively underused buses by limiting the hours when the GoPass is free, say, from 9 am to 3 pm, and after 7 pm.

    This would add the benefit that makes transit managers happy: filling empty buses before ordering new buses to carry free-riders.

    Also, a means test could be used. But a pitched battle over a sensible idea is hardly productive for the community.

  13. Gary says:

    The free rides may have been a political stunt, but they can also be looked at as part of the investment to bring back the lost culture of mass transit in Milwaukee and the surrounding area.

  14. Marie says:

    I agree with Gary. When viewed as an experiment/pilot, it does seem to be building more of a culture of mass transit. A reduced senior fee may make more sense (which had been offered) but if some new people have become riders they could well continue. People with vision could also push on the county and transit company to “experiment” with other ways to increase transit use.

    What’s needed for Milwaukee to address some intractable problems/issues is fresh ways of looking at things, willingness to try new approaches and using more community engagement as part of those processes. As for Abele’s role, has he ever stated his ideas about how to make the county less car-centric and make it easier for people to use transit to get to where the jobs are?

  15. BT says:

    This story (well reported by Mr Murphy) as well as many of the comments is yet another perfect example of the INSANE way Milwaukee County has been run for decades, along with the city of Milwaukee, both of which are being run straight into the ground at an alarming rate of speed. Sure, it is a free country and we are free to be on the left, on the right or somewhere in between, but whenever emotional factors are allowed to be the main factors considered in any decision, which sure seems to be a problem plaguing left wingers far more than moderates or those on the right, you inevitably are headed for disaster at some point.

    First though, let’s take in a few FACTS before jumping to emotional and as usual, irrational decision making:

    -Milwaukee County is its own tax hell island, in a tax hell state of WI, which has at least improved marginally under Walker, but was such a tax hell when he took office, will take many more years of changes that will inevitably be fought to the death by the left at every turn. For MKE Cty specifically though, a coupe of important FACTS-

    -Simply crossing 124th St for your choice of residence yields a huge savings in property taxes, that is a FACT. For my 124th St example, a home assessed at $250k in Tosa gets you a kick in the teeth tax bill of about $5900 a year and simply crossing the street into Brookfield drops that bill to about $3900 a year, over a 30% savings. Going further into Waukesha County and living in say, the Town of Eagle gets you down to around $2900 a year, about half of the Tosa bill!

    -As eye popping the kick in the teeth Tosa tax bill is, city of MKE is even worse, more like a kick to a certain lower point in the body! The $5900 Tosa bill for a $250k home goes up to $6900 to $7300 in MKE, depending on various things,

    -So, we have a tax hell island here and that’s even with the huge benefit the city and county have received from a major influx of of people moving into the downtown and lower east side area, which prior to 20 years ago or so, had very little higher end residential space, other than the older high rises on Prospect Ave and a few other spots, Yet, as much as the current elected officials and anyone else locally tries to regularly take credit for that, it was a NATIONAL trend of some people, often retirees as much as younger people “rediscovering” downtowns and other very urban areas. Oh yeah, also having the lakefront is a big plus and I doubt any recent pol had much to do with the creation of Lake Michigan, which I’m quite sure was here for a while before the recent influx of high end condos and rentals (yes, renters pay property tax too, just indirectly!)

    -Another FACT to keep in mind is that businesses, including those who offer skilled jobs that DUE TO THE SKILL REQUIRED, NOT DUE TO PASSING A RIDICULOUSLY INFLATED MINIMUM WAGE LAW WHICH WILL INEVITABLY KILL OFF MANY OR MOST OF THOSE UNSKILLED JOBS, pay a wage one can not only support themselves on but also a family and we’ve got absolutely thriving industrial parks in nearly every suburb OUTSIDE of MKE Cty and if the property tax bill difference for a $250k home sound like a kick in the teeth (or somewhere lower like in the city of MKE) sound like a rip off, imagine the difference when you’re talking about a huge manufacturing building, assessed in the millions! Yet, we’ll still have the same brain dead calls for “more good paying jobs” in the inner city,or just the city, with as usual nothing else to back them up, no reasoning, no logic, just “we need more good paying jobs”.How about giving these businesses a GOOD REASON to locate in MKE Cty? You think jacking up the already ridiculously high taxes is a good way to lure them here into the county and city? Ummm, no I don’t think so!

    So, having hopefully established the FACT that we need to cut out wasteful spending instead of wasting even more money if we ever expect this county to thrive by pointing out a few FACTS instead of just tossing out a bunch of purely emotional statements based on nothing factually, why in the world is anyone in favor of this handout that the group getting it didn’t even want in the first place???!!!

    If you want to FORCE mass transit upon people for whatever reason, don’t include me in that insanity, since all you’re going to accomplish is the fiscal destruction of this county and those of us who either choose to drive their own car, or as is my case, haul all sorts of stuff along for my work and can’t even dream of taking a bus any day of the year. Plus, even worse is the traffic hell you impose on the truck traffic that the businesses, who in the world wants to even attempt to operate a manufacturing biz (which is probably the best hope for having lots of new jobs that pay enough to support a family and don’t require a college degree, NOT some ridiculously inflated minimum wage for totally unskilled jobs that it is so darn simple to see that will just force the automation of those jobs, so ridiculously short sighted!) how the hell do you think by turning MKE Cty into an endless traffic jam by fighting to the death to stop 94 and other freeways from going to 8 lanes from 6 is going to help the economy?

    You can keep dreaming about your magical utopia where everyone just magically gets on the magic train (has to be a train!) that magically transports them to the front door of their job, not dropping them off blocks away on a -5 degree day and tying this free senior’s pass that the seniors groups said is a waste of money, based on a bunch of BS numbers that WOW, turned out to be just that-A BUNCH OF TOTAL BS NUMBERS FROM THE MKE COUNTY BOARD, BOY THAT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE HAS IT??!! Of course it has, it happens with gov’t at all levels daily, gov’t #’s are a joke, a total joke and they always end up being far more costly. Yet, none of the “love the government, want gov’t to take over everything” crowd ever learns!

    Same thing with the trolley, streetcar, big waste of money, whatever you want to call it, just wait to see what the REAL cost will be! Already more than doubled and don’t tell me that crap about ‘we HAD to use it on some stupid trolley to nowhere the bus doesn’t go”! If Gwen Moore, Tom Barrett and whoever else would’ve made a case for bus service to run lines to the many Waukesha Cty industrial parks packed with “now hiring” signs and provided a quick and efficient way for job seeking residents of the city’s poorest areas to easily get to the New Berlin industrial park and all the rest, you can’t tell me the feds would’ve made a way to get around that BS in a day! New Berlin for one, is now represented by the speaker of the house! Ald Joe Davis has forged a friendship with Sen Johnson (don’t bother with our other, totally invisible senator, she’s too busy at the Tomah VA covering things up!) Get them on board, which would take all of about 2 seconds, then go to President Obama, who ought to owe Barrett a few favors for serving as the sacrificial lamb in the recall election and I’ll bet Obama would be on board and we’d have REAL USEFUL TRANSIT to get the inner city residents needing jobs out to where the jobs are, since they’re NOT coming to our little tax hell county anytime soon, if ever! Nope, instead we’re getting the trolley to nowhere, you know the one they always omit the ugly overhead power lines from all of the renderings of!

  16. Bill Sell says:

    BT, about the taxes in Milwaukee. Some expenses do not belong on the property taxes and it is the state that controls the overall arrangement. I refer you to Sec. 70 of the Wisconsin tax code which lays down the law on assessments of property, and discourages property improvements because it raises taxes when the property is improved by the owner. This law specifically approves that commercial property should be taxed based on the income that the property tax brings in. So it the property tax is actually a “hidden” local income tax that bears the burden of supporting properties that do not bring in income, properties that are vacant, abandoned, or blighted, properties that should be the primary engine of an urban area.

    The burbs get a break when they zone for class, for income, for race and collect upper-economic class homeowners and slam the (transit) door shut on the people who would be employable in their county.

    Using the brain, calculating the math: A tax swap from the property tax to a sales tax would garner (yes) millions of dollars each year, and allow that visitors to this county would help pay the costs of running the county. If the burden is on the homeowner to support the city we will always be struggling because visitors get a free ride on our locally funded roads. And we pay.

    This goes back to years of Madison’s reluctance about the tax code and permitting local municipalities to manage their own budgets without chasing money out of the County.

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