What Has Mayor Barrett Accomplished?
After nearly 12 years in office, his impact can be seen -- if you look hard.
Back in 1982, Milwaukee Magazine ran a funny caricature of Mayor Henry Maier sitting on a throne with the headline, “What does this man do all day?” Readers were invited to send in their ideas and the magazine ran the best ones, which were scathingly funny blasts at the seeming irrelevance of the long-tenured mayor.
About 11 years later I wrote a feature story on Maier’s successor, John Norquist, and was struck by how many people I interviewed made similar comments — that Norquist really hadn’t done much as mayor. He’s now commonly viewed as a visionary, but few were seeing the vision back then.
Which brings us to Mayor Tom Barrett, who has quietly put in nearly 12 years as mayor, as long as the last socialist Frank Zeidler, who’s remembered with near-reverence. Barrett? In a recent rundown of his tenure by Larry Sandler in Milwaukee Magazine, Ald. Nik Kovac offered this assessment: “I think he’s a good mayor. I don’t think he even wants to be a great mayor.” Ouch.
Tom Barrett is the nice guy who may not finish last, but never looks like the leader of the pack. He often seems powered by the fumes of the Norquist administration, completing the Menomonee Valley redevelopment and downtown residential boom that started under Norq, and launching the streetcar to realize — in a small way — Norquist’s passion for rail transit.
But does it matter whose idea it was as long as the thing gets done? Barrett didn’t initially seek to hire Ed Flynn as police chief, but he changed course and embraced the idea, and Flynn has been a huge improvement on the chiefs who served under Norquist, as Norq admitted to Milwaukee Magazine.
Back when I wrote about Norquist, experts suggested a mayor has to do three things: keep taxes down, crime down, and the quality of schools up. That’s all about playing defense, trying to combat the causes of middle class flight. But Norquist played on offense, too, using urban design to drive development, attract residents from the suburbs and grow the tax base. Still, the reality is that cities have high poverty rates and Milwaukee’s challenge is all the greater because surrounding suburbs have aggressively used zoning codes to keep out low-income people. So how has Barrett handled this challenge?
Taxes: He’s done a great job. The property tax levy for the city has risen by 29 percent since 2004 during a time when inflation rose 26 percent. During this same time the state’s general purpose revenue rose by 46 percent. (Similarly, taxes rose far slower under Norquist than under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson; the supposedly “liberal” city has long been more fiscally conservative — including its tight-fisted socialist mayors — than the state.) And Barrett has accomplished this despite ever-shrinking state shared revenue.
Schools: Norquist was a strong advocate of choice schools, but there’s no evidence that has improved education in the city even as the percent of students with vouchers keeps rising. Barrett has been a supporter of both Milwaukee Public Schools and choice and charter schools, but was lukewarm about Gov. Jim Doyle’s push for a bill giving the mayor power to take over the Milwaukee school system. A lost opportunity, and an example of Barrett at his politically cautious worst.
Development: Barrett is staunchly behind his Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux, who can give powerful speeches touting city development, but gets poor grades from some in terms of his knowledge of urban design. This publication, including yours truly, has been particularly hard on Marcoux.
Yet, city development has been booming. Barrett cites $5 billion invested in or near Downtown since 2005, including a lot of residential development bringing middle-class residents to Downtown. The city has also done very well attracting new businesses to relocate or expand in Downtown and the Menomonee Valley.
However tone deaf to design issues Barrett might be, his administration has overseen a veritable boom in development and both the mayor and Marcoux have been effective cheerleaders pushing this.
Neighborhoods: Some community leaders complain neighborhoods have gotten little attention compared to that for Downtown. They made the same complaints about Norquist and Maier. But it’s worth noting that Walker’s Point was once a high-poverty, crime-ridden neighborhood that has turned into the city’s hottest areas for restaurants. Riverwest is also undergoing a renaissance. Arguably the most visionary project Barrett has ever taken on is the attempt to redevelop the 30th Street corridor, a huge stretch of land running from the Menomonee Valley to Hampton Ave. The project is so complicated that Urban Milwaukee ran a six-part series by Susan Nusser to explain it. If it succeeds (and at this point Barrett gets an “incomplete”), it could become the defining accomplishment of his tenure.
Poverty: Milwaukee is really several different cities, dramatized by the difference between redeveloped areas like the Third Ward and Bay View and desperately poor areas on the North Side. What has Barrett done? A project involving the city, United Way and other partners has cut the rate of teen pregnancy (which leads to all sorts of social ills) by an astounding 56 percent over the past seven years. This is a perfect example of Barrett’s low-key, cooperative leadership style.
The city has also targeted the blight of foreclosed homes caused by the Great Recession. Since 2007, over 1,794 city-owned foreclosed properties have been sold, adding $85 million in property value to the tax rolls and reducing blight in neighborhoods. In just the last year the city’s Strong Neighborhoods program has revitalized and sold 511 city-owned properties and provided $2 million in home loans and code compliance loans to help lower income homeowners. The city could have done much more if Gov. Scott Walker hadn’t grabbed nearly $26 million in money from a foreclosure suit settlement to plug a hole in the state budget.
Jobs: That’s the best solution to poverty. Critics complained Norquist did little about jobs and say the same about Barrett. In truth the city is so constrained by state prohibitions against a city income or sales tax, and so besieged by the decline in state shared revenue that there’s not much it can spend in this area. Barrett brought a federal Job Corp center to Milwaukee and his Manufacturing Partnership program has trained more than a thousand workers for specific jobs at 204 businesses since 2004, but as he conceded to Sandler, these are “micro-solutions” to a “macro-problem.”
The Environment: A new frontier for the city and a signature Barrett issue. The city’s Office of Environmental Sustainability has won $13 million in federal grants. The Better Building program has reduced energy use in municipal buildings by 11 percent, saving more than $500,000 in taxes per year since 2009. The Me2 program has retrofitted over 1,280 homes and 130 buildings since 2010, saving homeowners an average of 30 percent on energy bills through insulation, air sealing, and new HVAC systems, while creating green jobs, including for minority-owned firms. Another program helps homeowners save money long-term by converting to solar energy. Yes, all this helps the environment, but the emphasis is more on saving money for the city and its residents.
The Streetcar: It’s remarkable how intense the feelings are on both sides regarding a small project that’s mostly funded by federal dollars that would otherwise have been lost. This is another incomplete: the real costs and potential payoff — the touted impact on development — will come if the line gets extended.
City Finances: City streets are now on a schedule for replacement every 72 years, down from 163 a decade ago. Since 2004, annual city funding for core infrastructure — including bridges, street lighting, water mains, sewers — increased by $40.6 million, or nearly 95 percent. Barrett and aldermen pumped $49 million into the employee pension fund after the recession decimated the fund’s investments. As a result, no big city’s pension fund is more solvent than Milwaukee’s.
The most striking thing about this run-down is how at odds it is with the image of a big spending, out-of-touch liberal some conservatives use to describe the mayor. On the contrary, Tom Barrett is more the low-key, fiscally-prudent manager who’s tried to build strong, enduring systems in every part of city government. He’s anything but a grand-vision innovator or fiery leader, and his biggest failure is in the area of urban education (but show me a Wisconsin leader who has come up with any solution to this intractable problem). Year by year, in an incremental fashion, the Barrett administration has been steadily working and generally succeeding at making this a better city. Not a bad legacy.