State Rep. Daniel Riemer
Op Ed

Milwaukee County Needs a Bold Vision

Creative leadership could save money, pay for more services.

By - Oct 21st, 2019 12:37 pm
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Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by The original uploader was Sulfur at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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

Like everyone else, I was stunned when I learned that Chris Abele would not seek reelection this April. Life in public office is rewarding, but it can also be demanding and exhausting. I wish Chris and his family well as he returns to being a private citizen.

Whoever takes on the job next will need to work hard to address Milwaukee County’s major challenges—improving services while reducing costs, balancing budgets, and handling the crises that always emerge. But I believe that the opportunities for Milwaukee County outweigh any of its significant problems.

Milwaukee County is a great place. It is worth defending. It is essential that we keep improving it. I got my first job at Milwaukee County as a 16-year-old lifeguard. The thousands of kids who swam at Washington Park pool the two summers I worked there were better off because of the good things the county did. We now owe it to our kids and future generations to make those good things a reality for them. We need a County Executive who can make it happen.

We need a leader with a bold vision and Milwaukee hometown values. Here are my ideas about how such a leader could succeed.

Let’s start with the parks Milwaukeeans love. Our parks are the most visible legacy of our historic commitment to the future. That can be seen in park projects built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression that still benefit us today. But our parks and facilities need to be maintained. That’s why we should create a Parks Conservation Corps that offers job opportunities to unemployed Milwaukee County residents. Park Corps workers could clean and improve our parks, just like they did in the past when New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps gave the jobless a chance to build pavilions, construct bathhouses, and upgrade our park infrastructure. The city had a similar program several summers ago that utilized state funding to put people to work filling potholes.

As a State Representative, I authored bipartisan legislation that funded jobs for unemployed veterans that is now the law. A similar initiative that uses state, federal and private funding to put people to work improving our parks could do a lot to enhance their beauty and appeal. The new County Executive should take the lead.

Bringing more Milwaukeeans into the parks should be another priority. Building on good momentum in recent years, the new County Executive should push to make our parks an even stronger draw.

Just think of all the things you can do in our parks: walk your dog, ride your bike, fly a kite, swim in pools and at beaches, fish and hike. You can play basketball, tennis, soccer, golf, Frisbee golf, beach volleyball, rugby, sepak takraw (Southeast Asian volleyball with your feet), and bicycle polo. Your kids can climb on playgrounds while you have a drink at a beer garden. You can be awestruck by the lions and tigers and bears at The Zoo and admire exotic plants at The Domes. You can dance at a wedding in a pavilion (like my wife and I did for our wedding party at South Shore Park). In winter, you can sled, cross-country ski, and throw snowballs. In summer you can sail, canoe, kayak, grill out at a picnic, listen to music at a bandshell, and watch fireworks on the 4th of July.

But there is room to improve. In addition to beer gardens and concerts, we need programs that bring more people to the parks in winter, when it is hardest to get out of the house. New ideas for getting the most use out of our parks year-round should be encouraged, especially when they emerge naturally from the public and don’t cost the taxpayer any extra money.

Now let’s move on to buses. Thousands of Milwaukee County residents rely on our buses to get to and from work. But cuts to routes can be the difference between a shot at the middle class and a dim future. We have to maintain routes that exist and look for new ways to get the most out of our transit system.

Important progress has been made in key areas during Chris Abele’s tenure. The county’s easy-to-use app for bus tracking is something I like to use to figure out when and where to catch the bus. The county has also modernized the payment mechanism for bus rides, which speeds up boarding.

Going forward, these valuable improvements should be followed with additional enhancements in bus service. The new County Executive should commit to all Zero-Emission vehicles by 2030 to help fight climate change. The county should also use Parks Conservation Corps workers to clean buses, inside and out, more frequently.

Our bus drivers are some of the hardest working people in town. Viral videos often show their heroism too—rescuing kids from the street. They deserve a safe work environment just like the rest of us. That means greater investment is security for riders and drivers.

All of this—and other reforms—will take money. Milwaukee County can save a lot of money by improving the way it buys employee health insurance. Not only would employees get better benefits, but the changes would yield major savings for taxpayers.

One option is for the county to team up with Milwaukee Public Schools, the city, and other local governments to use their combined purchasing power to drive down the cost of buying health insurance for each government’s taxpayers. The State of Wisconsin has already shown in Dane County how to do this. Working with the County Board and with stakeholders from across the community, the next County Executive could create major savings for the county budget—and taxpayers—by taming the largest runaway cost while maintaining good benefits for county workers.

Another way to generate savings for Milwaukee County would be to end the policy that makes Milwaukee County the only county in Wisconsin that does not let State Troopers patrol its state and Interstate highways. The State of Wisconsin should treat Milwaukee County the same as all the other counties in the state. Any net savings should be devoted to other safety priorities, and tax relief. The new County Executive should make it a priority to change this discriminatory state policy.

The next County Executive should also work with our new Sheriff and law enforcement from municipalities around the County to explore ways to eliminate wasteful duplicative policing of County Parks and Parkways. There may be a safety and fiscal win-win that comes from better collaboration and cooperation.

In addition, the new County Executive should push to have the State of Wisconsin adequately fund or administer many of the functions related to mental health and addiction treatment where state action has fallen short. One of the initiatives County Executive Abele championed was to sign up as many Milwaukee County residents as possible for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). We now need to go ever further.

As the lead author in the State Legislature of the proposal to expand Medicaid coverage and bring hundreds of millions of our federal tax dollars back to Wisconsin, I am keenly aware of how improved coverage for Milwaukeeans means both better health (including mental health and addiction treatment) and local tax savings. The priorities of the new County Executive should include an even bigger push to get our state to do what so many others (both “blue” and “red” states) have done: expand Medicaid and take pressure off county taxpayers to finance such a large share of mental health and addiction treatment.

Milwaukee County residents will have a hard time believing that it makes sense to raise their taxes unless the new County Executive does everything possible to improve services and cut costs. The next County Executive should therefore do everything possible to eliminate waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending. A starting point would be to appoint a blue-ribbon Task Force that meets in public and is open to public input, to identify cost savings that can prudently be made that reduce the pressure to impose higher taxes on Milwaukee County residents.

Milwaukee County is a great place to call home, whether you are a 5th generation Milwaukeean like me, or you’ve taken the immigrant journey here like my wife Paula. I cannot think of a nice day that we haven’t taken our 15-month-old son to the park. The natural beauty and variety of activities in our parks is amazing. We believe the future of Milwaukee County is bright. We now need a leader to take us where we need to go.

Daniel Riemer is a Democratic State Representative from Milwaukee

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

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