Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Abele’s Budget Sees Cuts, and New Programs

Proposed budget closes two pools and cuts bus routes, but boosts the Sheriff's department

By - Oct 1st, 2019 03:35 pm

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by The original uploader was Sulfur at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by The original uploader was Sulfur at English Wikipedia (GFDL) or (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele released his $1.18 billion budget proposal Tuesday. It includes the sort of cost cutting that Milwaukee County has seen every year for nearly a decade. But it also includes new investments in capital spending, health and human services and corrections.

The county’s property tax levy will rise to $301.8 million, a growth of $7.4 million.

But the ever-present reality of the Abele’s 2020 recommended budget is the county’s revenue crisis. This year there was a countywide savings target of 1.7 percent. So, every department was asked to submit a budget that relied 1.7 percent less on the county tax levy. Still, the budget managed to include a 1 percent bump in wages for Milwaukee County employees.

Milwaukee County has made significant budget cuts for nearly a decade. In the past nine years, Milwaukee County has cut a total of $278 million. “Taken in sum, they pose very real threats to the quality of life for Milwaukee County residents,” Abele said.

Since the fall of 2018, Abele and County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb have been spearheading a drive for more revenue. Outlining how state aids are stagnant, not keeping pace with inflation, despite Milwaukee County sending more revenue to the state annually, they’ve demonstrated that Milwaukee County is hampered to a certain extent by decisions they have no control over. Now, with the help of local municipalities and business leaders, they are attempting to hold a referendum in Milwaukee County to ask residents if they would favor an increase in the sales tax to help fund local government. Abele said the county has, “Started to work with Madison for the first time in a long time.”

In early 2019, Milwaukee County estimates put the annual structural deficit at approximately $12 million. The latest projections show that Milwaukee County can expect an average structural deficit of $15 million annually. And, Abele said, “If we continue down this path, projections show we are facing a very real deficit to the tune of $79 million in five years.”

Another major factor in this year’s budget is Milwaukee County’s racial equity plan. Since Abele declared racism a public health crisis, the plan is baked into the cake of the 2020 budget. The county executive and his administration say they used a racial equity lens to make decisions about which communities and services most needed funding. The administration points to decisions made on the parks and transit spending as indicative of this.


Abele’s 2020 budget for Parks includes a $900,000 cut in operating costs. This is due in part to the 1.7% cut across the county, but also 2019 revenues collected by the Parks Department were significantly less than projected, so the budget had to make up for that.

The proposed parks budget also sees two pool closures for next season. Grobschmidt Pool in South Milwaukee and Holler Park Pool on the southside will both close. Milwaukee County had trouble staffing lifeguards this summer. In fact, Holler Park Pool was already closed in 2019 due to a lack of lifeguards.

Abele’s budget includes $7.5 million for 16 Parks capital projects, significantly more than previous budgets. The 2019 adopted capital budget for Parks was $1.3 million for four projects. While this is a step in the right direction for the parks system, it skims the surface of the massive backlog of capital projects in county parks.

The administration scores capital projects using a set of criteria to rank each project. This year, for the first time, racial equity was added to the scoring criteria for these projects. The budget also included $40,000 for a workforce development program in “traditionally underserved communities” to create, “A career pipeline to family sustaining jobs and diversify our workforce,” as Abele put it.


The biggest news for transit in Milwaukee County came in March when leadership at the Milwaukee County Transit System announced they were facing a $6 million budget deficit. They later announced they would have to cut 16 bus routes to mitigate the deficit. By August MCTS was estimating the gap at $8 million.

In September, Abele announced that a significant amount of that budget hole had been reduced. The county executive redirected more than $4 million in funds to the transit budget, saving 10 routes marked for cuts.

Still, special lines for Brewers Games, Summerfest, State Fair and ethnic festivals will be cut. And six routes with low numbers of bus passengers per hour, that have an annual operating cost of $1.8 million, will also be cut.

Underscoring the fiscal picture of Milwaukee County Transit are the negotiations between MCTS and the Amalgamated Transit Union 998, which represents transit workers. After a failed contract vote in early September, MCTS and union leaders are expected to resume negotiations in October. And at a recent rally, union leaders said they will not settle for any route cuts in the 2020 budget, and could call a work stoppage over route cuts.


Following recent moves by Milwaukee County to re-think the way they handle corrections, Abele’s proposed budget would move 180 people out of the House of Corrections and back into the community, though their location would still be monitored electronically.

Abele’s budget would close down dorms in the House of Corrections that house those with Huber privileges. These privileges let them leave the facility for up to 16 hours a day to work. Closing the dorms saves the county an estimated $1.7 million, but it is also a major benefit to these individuals that will be able to return to their families and communities while they finish their sentences. Commuting from the House of Corrections has been an issue for many with Huber privileges, reconnecting them with their community should help with this, the county executive said in a press release.

Abele also included funding for five new full time lieutenants in the Milwaukee County Jail. In June, Jail Commander, Inspector Aaron Dobson, told the county board that low pay and high turnover was causing the jail to lose corrections officers faster than they could hire them.

Sheriff’s Department

Sheriff Earnell Lucas produced a budget request this year that was approximately $4 million over the targeted levy reduction of 1.7 percent. Abele didn’t give Lucas that $4 million, but he did include roughly $1.1 million in new funding.

This went towards 15 new full-time positions. Eight of the new positions are command positions ( including five new lieutenants in the jail), and seven are new deputy sheriff positions for the courts.

Abele also included $200,000 to put 200 body cameras on members of the sheriff’s department. Until now, the sheriff’s department has only ever had a body camera pilot program, launched in 2018 under then Sheriff Richard Schmidt, which put body cameras on 20 deputies on foot patrol.

Forensic Science Center

The biggest capital project in Abele’s proposed budget is $11 million for planning and initial construction of a new forensic science center. The plan, in Abele’s proposed budget, is to partner with the Medical College of Wisconsin. “This state-of-the-art facility will co-locate essential medical, safety and research services between the Medical College of Wisconsin and Milwaukee County’s Medical Examiner and Office of Emergency Management.”

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)

Abele funds four new positions and $600,000 for capital buildout, for a new program called ‘No Wrong Door’. The programs would allow Milwaukee County residents to access vital services from any DHHS facility in the county.

The budget also includes an additional $250,000 in funding for the county’s eviction and homelessness prevention programs.

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Categories: MKE County, Politics

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