Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

What Has Mayor Barrett Accomplished?

After nearly 12 years in office, his impact can be seen -- if you look hard.

By - Jan 14th, 2016 12:23 pm
Mayor Tom Barrett speaking at the groundbreaking for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Tom Barrett speaking at the groundbreaking for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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.

Crime: Property crime is down on Flynn’s watch and violent crime was down as well, until an upsurge in the last two years. But it’s certainly not for a lack of resources. The Police Department budget has grown by by 38 percent, from $180 million in 2004 to $248 million in 2016, and the police budget is now 43 percent of the city’s total operating budget. As for Flynn, he is a nationally-known innovator who has brought the department out of dark ages by deploying tough, data driven enforcement balanced with smart community policing techniques.

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

33 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: What Has Mayor Barrett Accomplished?”

  1. Marcel says:

    Bs article, murders are up 60 percent. Come to the north side and it looks like the “Wire”. Barrett has only been a marginally decent mayor to white people in the city of Milwaukee. His lack of leadership in the inner city is almost criminal. From how quickly snow is removed to pothole, black neighborhoods are always the last priority.

  2. Tim says:

    WCD, can you please set the record straight?

  3. John says:

    Yeah, I would love to see WCD spend time to actually refute Bruce’s points. We will get some variation of his favorite four or five run on sentences claiming the same things without really any points of reference.

    I am not sure what anyone expects any Mayor to do regarding generational poverty affecting the North side. Generational poverty is a sad fixture of most major cities in this country and most solutions likely would need to come at the Federal level.

    I think Bruce does a great job referencing the successes the current administration has had, which are quite significant. I think they made a calculated decision to try and affect the most positive improvements they could given budget constraints, lower state aid, and a complete lack of cooperation from the suburban communities. Many parts of the city have undergone amazing transformations for the better.

  4. Dave says:

    “His lack of leadership in the inner city is almost criminal.”

    Really, Marcel? WTF do you expect? You want the Mayor to wave his magic wand to come up with money he doesn’t have to reverse 100 years of racial segregation when every mechanism of regional and state government is built so this doesn’t happen?

  5. 2fs says:

    Marcel: “60 percent” compared to what? As Murphy notes: there has been an uptick the last two years (and Milwaukee is not at all alone in this uptick), but the overall trend is still downwards.

    Stats about increases and decreases can always be massaged to look better or worse by carefully choosing beginning or endpoints. But long-term trends are the most reliable.

  6. Walt Kelly says:

    The Mayor did a nice job in his support for the Milwaukee River urban revitalization project.

    He’s also a very capable consensus builder in working with sometimes very contentious
    factions or interests in the city.

  7. Bill Sweeney says:

    It might make for an interesting follow up article to get a take on how black political leaders feel about Barrett and his record as Mayor.

  8. AG says:

    When I was on a tour with Historic Milwaukee once, Mayor Barrett came along as a guest guide. On that tour he gave a talk that specifically addressed what he did as mayor. When it came to fiscal responsibility his answer was simple and poignant. He said, to paraphrase, his job as mayor is not necessarily to keep budgets down, but to do everything in his power to make sure the residents pay as little of it as possible.

    This was appalling to me because he outright admitted he does every thing to make the rest of the state and the country pay as much as possible instead of first trying to keep costs in check.

    More importantly though, I hold Mayor Barrett responsible for the recent dramatic increase in violent crime. Flynn’s decision to add a “no chase” policy has created an environment where inner city criminals feel they can get away with anything.

    This is not a talking point. Law enforcement officer friends tell me first hand how criminals run a lot more now then they used to and when they are caught they readily admit the “no chase” policy, as they understand it, makes them think they can just run and cops won’t chase. This is why they’re out doing these crimes with so much more frequency. Car jackings, burglary, and strong armed roberies are all being perpetrated at a much greater rate ever since this policy was enacted. Mayor Barett and Chief Flynn seriously need to re-evaluate this decision.

    BTW Bruce, did you compare Milwaukee tax levy to Wisconsin state tax revenue? The way I’m reading that, it appears apples to oranges. It may not change the outcome, but can you correct that to show tax levy’s for both or total tax revenue for both?

  9. Paul Miller says:

    Can someone provide more details or examples on the complaints about design, planning, and Marcoux. I read the linked piece on Marcoux, and all I took away was that some people have found him difficult to work with (which is definitely a problem), yet I haven’t seen examples or illustrations of his miscues on design and urban planning issues. I’m not saying criticisms are not valid, just that I need some more explanation or discussions of specific projects. My understanding was that the city has been, for a provincially-minded rust belt city, doing pretty well with that stuff.

  10. Paul Miller says:

    One more thought: I would add that the upgrades to and renovations of neighborhood library branches has been a good accomplishment — and one that reaches beyond downtown. Several have been completed, and others are underway.

  11. tom says:

    I fully appreciate the things Barrett has done for Milwaukee. Bruce laid the argument out very well. If you want to see Milwaukee sink fast vote for Bob Donovan, the south side hothead.

  12. Mike says:

    Fair & objective article. Mayor Barrett is historically better by comparison to most of the mayors of Milwaukee except for Dan Hoan, Taxes: very good, Development: very good, Environment: very good, City Finances: very good, Crime: good, Housing: Good, Neighborhoods: good to bad, Poverty: good to bad, Schools: good to bad, function of the state and Walker administration is not helping, Jobs: federal, state and municipal function, federal and local show success. All this despite, lack of the state and the suburbs working to support the financial center of the state.
    Mayor Barrett has taken ownership of the successes and failures for everything in his world as Mayor of Milwaukee. He doesn’t complain, criticize or blame others. That’s leadership. He has surprised me with a persistent, quiet strength and endurance to make MKE a better, more attractive place to work and to live.
    And what is WCD; weak, conservative debris? or; willing, conservative determination?

  13. Ryan N says:

    @AG So what you’re telling me is that Barrett is responsible for the crime spike around the country? Every area has different laws but has seen a big spike in 2015.

  14. M says:

    “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.”

    Bruce, how do you imagine that Barrett, noted for not being a visionary or innovator, would have somehow made MPS better by becoming its superintendent (on top of his job asmayor? Where has that mayor-on-a-white-horse concept produced stellar results? Why might a politician know more about running challenged schools than professionals like Darienne Driver?

  15. Dave says:

    The mayor would have appointed the superintendent, not become the superintendent. Considering the clowns running to replace him, I’m not sure this strategy would have been a good long term idea (or even what the benifits would have been in the short term).

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    AG you veer into WCD with posts like that.

  17. Milwaukee Native says:

    Sustainability initiatives could be the Barrett administration’s most significant legacy. If he wins a 4th term, he could ratchet that up even more and try to link it to more new green jobs, etc. He could make the environment a bully pulpit issue, esp. since the state at large is lagging in this sector–due to climate-change-denier-in-chief Walker and his GOP cronies beholden to carbon-based energy interests.

    Urban agriculture, thanks to Will Allen and others, is big in MKE. Programs to use vacant lots for gardens, community spaces and other uses don’t cost a lot, with community volunteers doing much of the work. The can yield big payoffs relative to city investment.

  18. tim haering says:

    Bruce, you may find this a frivolous comment, but Barrett has regrown his mustache mojo, he’d be governor now. He was a different guy.

  19. M says:

    @TIm, Facial hair as election-outcome predictor? Do you really think Barrett had more mojo with a ‘stache? Please give at least one example from that era to help make your case.

  20. Victor says:

    If I had to voice a complaint I would say retiring in the City of Milwaukee isn’t very attractive. Perhaps the mayor could cap property taxes once you reach a certain age. When most folks get older they are forced to move because it eventually becomes unaffordable.

  21. AG says:

    Ryan N, we’ve seen a larger spike than anywhere (and not everywhere has seen a big increase). I don’t blame Barrett 100% for the increase, especially since it’s Flynn’s policy and you have other factors like the so called “Ferguson effect”, but I know the no chase policy has affected the attitudes of criminals in Milwaukee.

    Vincent Hanna, which part? I like to think I’m at least more specific than WCD ever is… but I’d be happy to break it down better.

  22. M says:

    @ Paul Miller,
    In response to you Q about Rocky Marcoux’s miscues about urban planning, many say Sydney Hih was one:

    One unhappy developer:

    The city gave the Bucks that site and now it may get developed in 10 years or so.

    PabstCity was another:

    The jury will be out for awhile on arena-district development and closing 4th Street, which he will oversee.

  23. Dave Reid says:

    @AG Just to be clear it is not a “no chase policy.” “If the officer has knowledge that this person has committed a violent crime or has probable cause to believe it, we authorize a pursuit,” Chief Flynn said.

  24. AG says:

    Dave Reid, thanks for clearing that up for everyone who wasn’t aware. That is why I used quotes when I say “no chase” policy and why I said, “as they understand it, makes them think they can just run and cops won’t chase.” The word on the street makes these kids think they can just run and cops won’t chase.

    Vincent, I think my grip on this is pretty good. I was merely listing a few other causes, and by Ferguson Effect I was actually more talking about the attitude towards law enforcement officers. I have many other gripes about crime in the city but I didn’t bring them up since I don’t think Barrett has control over them. For example, prosecuting gun crimes to the extent they were designed and plea bargaining crimes down all the time.

    Don’t take my word for it on this stuff… talk to your community liaison officer or a cop patrolling in your neighborhood (for those of you who live in the city). The crime in my neighborhood has sky rocketed in the last year or two… while it’s mainly property crimes and carjackings, I don’t think the correlation to the increase in violent crime in the whole of the city is coincidence.

  25. AG says:

    Vincent, went and read the Wash Post article and they actually were talking about what I was referring to. It said, “For police in Milwaukee, the real Ferguson effect has been a sudden and harsh cold shoulder from the public.

    “You have people blatantly doing things they wouldn’t do years ago. You have more people challenging cops. They say, ‘I know my rights.’ They say, ‘They can’t tell us what to do.’ Before, it wasn’t this bad,” Phillips said.

    “For me, I’m not black enough because I’m black and arresting another black man,” he said. “Other black males have called me racist. I’ve been called the white man’s b—-. Every time I arrest somebody, they make it a race issue.'”

  26. Bob D. says:

    Downtown skyscrapers and condos are good for Milwaukee, but Milwaukee won’t make real progress on most of its serious problems until a middle class family can be guaranteed to send their kids to at least a decent public, neighborhood school. The schools in Milwaukee’s middle class neighborhoods score 1s and 2s out of 10 on Middle class families can’t afford to pay Milwaukee’s property taxes and also send their kids to private schools. Also, they won’t gamble that there kids will get into and have to go across town to attend one of the few decent schools left in MPS.

  27. Otto says:

    I agree with Ald. Kovac’s assessment. Barrett has been a serviceable mayor who seems to have set the bar pretty low, he’s just been a better option than the last few people running against him. The city needs a leader with a get things done attitude and the will to do it. Schools and crime are huge issues that keep families moving out of the city for the suburbs. Change in those areas will help the city grow long term and failure to make changes will further diminish the city. It won’t be popular and I’m sure the next mayor will be called names if he works to change things but that is what needs to be addressed.

  28. Otto says:

    And the next mayor needs to campaign on immediately canceling the street car boondoggle before it drains funds from the city.

  29. Casey says:

    AG- While the mayors comments about taxes maybe off putting (or not remembered correctly) I’ve shown multiple times over the years with supporting links that Milwaukee contributes more to Wisconsin rolls then what is returned.

  30. Tim says:

    It’s funny that education keeps being brought in reviewing the mayor’s record. Everyone does know the mayor doesn’t have control over that, right? In fact, a separate entity called MPS has been setup and received the majority of its funding by the state of WI, for just that purpose.

    I don’t know why the state of WI originally setup MPS with its current structure, but we can all agree on the persistently mediocre results. If MPS isn’t working, why doesn’t Governor Walker, the republican state Senate & republican state Assembly make any changes?

    They seem to be perfectly content cutting MPS a check every year, more than $500,000,000.00 for last year alone, don’t you all want more for your money?–Finance/Past-Budgets/2014-2015AmendedAdoptedBudget.pdf

    I’ve given up assuming that you’re blaming Barrett because you just don’t know the facts above. That only the state of WI can change the makeup of MPS’s structure & funding, with that power directly held by our republican state government.

    Take your crocodile tears about MPS elsewhere.

  31. Dave says:

    “And the next mayor needs to campaign on immediately canceling the street car boondoggle before it drains funds from the city.”

    Ok, Otto. 1-2 million in a year in subsidized operating cost is a significant cost to the city? You realize the budget is 1.5 BILLION dollars, right? You know what we spend a shit load of money on? Cops and firefighters. Maybe we could afford a few more cops and firefighters that everyone wants if their greedy unions didn’t demand absurd wages and benefits for primarily high school educated employees.

  32. Daniel says:

    Sec. of Education Arne Duncan calls Milwaukee’s education results as a “national disgrace”. Economy, crime, property values are all intimately interlinked with a burgeoning population of near-illiterates.

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