Council Approves $1.5 Billion Budget
Despite changes by council, budget still eliminates 27 police officers, 75 firefighters.
The Milwaukee Common Council today approved a $1.53 billion 2018 budget for the city. A series of amendments approved by the council reduced the number of police officers that were to be eliminated as well as adding funding for a number of programs, including everything from a late night basketball league and early childhood initiatives office to a streetlight outage response team and a grant to driver’s education program.
The final budget approved by the council will restore six full time equivalent police officer positions, via recruiting classes, and add eight civilian Community Service Officers that respond to non-confrontational calls for service. The police department currently has 17 such positions.
The approved budget will still eliminate 27 police officers and 75 firefighters. The elimination of the fire fighting positions will include the closure of six fire houses. Alderman Robert Bauman introduced a controversial amendment that would have preserved the fire house at 424 N. 30th St. in his district. That amendment, which would have relied on a grant from the non-profit Near West Side Partners and a $1.5 million increase in the property tax levy, was not adopted. As a result, Bauman eventually voted against the entire budget.
An omnibus budget amendment approved unanimously unified a number of changes to the budget and leveraged savings from a number of areas. The city will receive an additional $1.1 million in state aid for road repair, save $128,000 from a new home deconstruction program and have costs associated with the streetcar project offset by the previously announced Potawatomi Hotel & Casino sponsorship deal.
The budget preserves the mayor’s proposed property tax rate of $10.77 for every $1,000 in assessed value, up from $10.75. Coupled with other fee increases, the average Milwaukee homeowner will see their annual tax bill increase $51.
The property tax rate has increased by $2.68 since 2009. During this same period, the “real” or inflation-adjusted property tax levy has decreased by $1.9 million.
The police officer positions were restored via two separate amendments. The first added space for five recruits at a recruiting class at the end of a year (though under one full time equivelant position) via cutting personnel costs in every non-public safety department. The second amendment, sponsored by Zielinski, eliminated two currently unfilled positions in the administration of the police department in favor of five recruits. Mayor Tom Barrett‘s original budget proposed eliminating 33 officers.
Finance & Personnel Committee chair Milele A. Coggs, who led the adoption of the budget, said “as we all know this budget year has been one of the toughest that those of us on the council have ever seen.” She praised the council and mayor’s staff for making the most of a difficult situation.
The difficult budget was caused by a number of factors, but perhaps none was more stark than the need to increase the annual pension contribution. The city is required to keep the pension fully funded, and due to an actuarial change, will need to contribute an additional $22 million next year. In his address introducing the budget in September, Barrett said that 90 percent of those increased funds will go towards contributions for public safety employees, who are exempt from Act 10. So while the budget cuts the number of police and fire fighters, the amount the city is spending on the two departments will actually increase. The total pension contribution is $83 million.
As promised in his October press conferences, Ald. Zielinski did offer amendments to cut streetcar-related positions and other city positions and programs to support more police officers. Most of Zielinski’s amendments were withdrawn before the full council could vote on them, with only one ultimately passing.
Funding for the streetcar-related costs, which relied on the parking fund, were ultimately adjusted as part of the omnibus amendment. That funding is no longer required in 2018 as Potawatomi’s sponsorship will cover the costs.
After the budget was approved council president Ashanti Hamilton said, “in every one of our budgets we really tried to have a balanced approach to how to create stable neighborhoods. I think you will see in this budget that there was an attempt to support the concerns of many in the community of the presence and number of police officers. We did the best we can to try to add to that, while recognizing that public safety is greater than more law enforcement.” Hamilton noted the council’s final spending plan comes in at less than the mayor’s, although it’s only a couple thousand dollars less on a $1.53 billion budget.
The city will face increasingly difficult budgets as long as their state shared revenue payments continue to decline. As Mayor Tom Barrett said in his budget address, while the state has seen its tax revenue increase by 59 percent in the past 14 years, the city has seen almost no increase in state share revenue and continues to receive less back from the state than it contributes. The gap, which has grown tremendously in recent years, now leaves the city short tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue it previously received as part of the state shared revenue formula. The shared revenue program has been used by the state for more than a century to return a portion of the income and sales taxes collected by the state to the municipalities in which they’re generated.
The budget will be reviewed by the mayor who has the authority to veto any amendment.
One amendment the mayor is certain to look at vetoing is one sponsored by downtown alderman Robert Bauman. The amendment cuts the pay in half for the head of the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals and allocates the $25,000 savings towards future mailings for the formation of neighborhood improvement districts.
Bauman has an issue with the BOZA chair, telling his colleagues “basically the chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals is not following the law.” Bauman, who has found himself at odds with the Department of City Development over the contentious 1550 N. Prospect Ave. high rise proposal, notes that BOZA chair Catherine Doyle is ignoring the comprehensive plans the city has invested heavily in when rendering her decisions.
He found support for cutting her salary when he told his colleagues how much she’s paid versus how much he estimates she works, “$52,000 a year for maybe 10 of work a month.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that none of Zielinski’s amendments had passed. One amendment did pass that will add five recruits to a police recruiting class by eliminating two unfilled, high-ranking positions in the police department.
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