The Fire Fighters’ Selfish Agenda
The union’s backing of Barrett recall is all about driving up their wages and benefits.
It was not that long ago, after all, that the police and fire unions had tremendous clout with city officials. It was difficult for any city politician to get elected if they were opposed by the two unions, and a majority of Common Council members could be counted on to support collective bargaining agreements that were good to police and fire fighters.
But that hasn’t been true for a decade or more. Nowadays the police and fire unions can get the support of only a couple Common Council members on key issues and have had trouble electing an alderman friendly to their cause even in a district where many of their members live.
The late alderman Joe Dudzik, whose father Jerome Dudzik had once run the police union, told me that Common Council members had “lost all respect” for the police and fire union leaders, saying “The difference is stark from the old days.”
Indeed, when it was announced on July 7, the recall had not one notable person or group behind it, which would seem to doom its chances of getting more than 51,000 signatures in 60 days, much less of finding a viable candidate to oppose Barrett. The fact that the fire union is now involved (though its president Dave Seager declined to explicitly endorse the recall when asked by Bice) doesn’t change the odds for a recall all that much. It actually says far more about the union’s loss of power at City Hall than about any weakness of the mayor.
The cost of police and fire fighters has changed dramatically because the city has gotten squeezed by the state since the mid-1990s, when state shared revenue paid the entire cost of Milwaukee’s police and fire departments, plus another $38 million for other costs, as I’ve reported. Since then, state shared revenue to Milwaukee has steadily dropped, in real dollars plummeting from $366 million in 1995 to $219 million today. During that same period the state biennial budget rose more than six-fold, from $11.2 billion to $72.7 billion.
Personnel costs drive both the city and state budget, so the city has been mercilessly squeezed. In 2004, when Barrett started as mayor, the police and fire budget represented 62.7 percent of the city’s combined shared revenue and property tax levy; by 2017 the police and fire budget accounted for 87.7 percent. Increasingly, it’s become difficult for the city to pay for anything but police and fire services.
Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law, Act 10, reduced benefits for government workers, except police and fire fighters, who happened to support his election, and who are a bigger part of Milwaukee’s budget than any governmental unit in the state. This has meant that everyone from the mayor to garbage workers to city librarians now contribute more to their pension, but not the police and fire workers. Today, police and fire workers account for 77 percent of all taxpayer contributions to city employee pensions.
Meanwhile the police and fire unions have done everything possible to add to the city’s financial problems, doing end runs around the collective bargaining process and successfully lobbying for state laws that force the city to spend more money to give them special deals: for instance a law guaranteeing that police who were suspended could continue to collect pay while they fought the suspension in court.
But the biggest gift to the unions was the law ending the residency requirement for city workers. The unions had been offered the option of taking a reduced wage and benefit package from the city in return for ending residency, and declined. They used the collective bargaining process to give them the best retirement package of any employees in the state, allowing cops to retire as early as age 43 and fire workers as early as age 49. Then they circumvented the process and got Walker and Republican legislators to end the residency requirement.
Police and fire workers often grumble about city property taxes, which are higher than many surrounding suburbs. But the major, nay overwhelming reason for the level of taxes is the wages and benefits they are paid. Now they needn’t live in the city and help contribute to the tax base that has so generously rewarded them.
City records show that 214 of 712 fire fighters — 30 percent of the city’s entire force — now live outside the city. (Just over 27 percent of police officers have moved out of the city.) In short, nearly a third of the fire fighters aren’t even eligible to sign the recall petition.
So I wouldn’t expect the fire fighters help to have a great impact on the recall effort. Mostly they are simply proving how willing they are to repeatedly bite the hand that feeds them. And then they wonder why most city politicians have a negative view of them.
The issues put forth by the largely anonymous backers of the recall are crime, the streetcar, and the need to replace lead laterals in older residences in the city. All were raised in 2016 and Barrett still won overwhelmingly, which suggests there will not be a groundswell of volunteers circulating petitions.
Crivello tells me says he was contacted by at least two people asking him to help fund the recall effort. “I was asked more than once to participate and I declined. I philosophically believe we have elections and should respect the result.”
There’s also speculation that the Republican PR operative Craig Peterson might funnel money to the effort but he emphatically denies this.
“The folks involved in the recall are people I know,” he notes, “so I may have made introductions between them.” But he hasn’t offered to provide any money for the effort, “not a cent,” he says.
As for who contacted Crivello about supporting the effort, he declined to say, but when asked whether it was Peterson, he said no: “I was not contacted by Craig Peterson.”
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