You Can Balance the County Budget
Abele’s new widget gives citizens a chance to submit draft spending plans.
When it comes to creating a budget for a governing agency serving nearly a million county residents of many different political persuasions, it is a balancing act.
And Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele is aiming to convey this message to constituents in the city of Milwaukee and its 18 adjacent suburbs through a new aptly-named online widget, A Balancing Act.
The recently launched online platform gives users an opportunity to create their own county budget in 2018 by following a series of prompts. All users on the widget start with a $42.1 million deficit — the amount projected next year — and need to find ways of making cuts.
A Balancing Act, created through Denver-based software company Engaged Public, went live earlier this month, though a significant amount of work took place behind the scenes. In March, Abele and a few staffers in the county’s budget office discussed the software with municipal leaders across the county.
“The appeal is more clarity in the public discussion,” Abele said.
And clarity is not always a quality you associate with our fractious Milwaukee County leaders.
Steven Kreklow, director of performance strategy and budgeting, said the exercise should take 10 to 15 minutes to complete. The goal, he said during the March meeting, is to create as easy an interface as possible.
In his recent statement, Abele said the requirement of a submitted balanced budget is deliberate.
“We’ve made a lot of progress over the past six years, but Milwaukee County is at a real crossroads,” he said. “With an expected deficit in the upcoming budget, sustained progress will be difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
Melissa Moore Baldauff, a spokeswoman for Abele, said residents can submit their recommended budgets through at least the end of August. Abele, under state statutes, has to submit a draft budget to the County Board by October 1 — or sooner.
“If public interest remains high (after Aug. 31), we will certainly consider extending the timeframe for Balancing Act submissions into early September to collect additional feedback,” Moore Baldauff said.
Users taking part in A Balancing Act will have to comb through 11 specific areas of the budget. Some — such as transportation, public safety and the parks — are high profile and of importance to many county residents.
But the widget also gives users a glimpse into the decision-making behind some of the more under-the-radar aspects of county government, including a budget specifically designated for trust funds and another relegated toward legislative and executive expenses.
No area of county government is off limits, including Sheriff David Clarke’s office, which comprises $52 million of a $137.7 million budget for public safety. (Other areas of the public safety budget go toward such functions as the medical examiner, district attorney and the emergency management system.)
As a separately elected official, Clarke does not answer to Abele — a point that frequently becomes obvious during public sparring between the two — but Clarke does have to operate his office within the financial confines Abele and the County Board set.
A Balancing Act is an extension of Engage MKE, the initiative Abele has been touting in recent years as a means of bolstering the level of feedback his office receives as budgetary decisions are made.
Moore Baldauff said the new online widget is one additional mechanism Abele is using to collect feedback on budget priorities. The traditional, long-running listening sessions are also in the works, she said, as are the small-group breakout meetings that have taken place in recent years.
“The Balancing Act component … is not intended to replace listening sessions or other in-person opportunities for public feedback,” Moore Baldauff said. “It is an additional opportunity to engage the community and educate them on the county’s budget process and priorities.”
So grab that widget, citizens, and get to work.