Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Cuts Police, Adopts $1.6 Billion Budget

Council wrestles with huge fiscal challenges due to rising police costs, declining state aid.

By - Nov 8th, 2019 04:29 pm
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Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee’s $1.6 billion budget has been approved by the Common Council. By all accounts, it was the most difficult budget deliberation the council has faced in a decade and is expected to be the new normal.

In addition to cuts across every city department, the council approved a budget that will reduce the sworn strength of the Milwaukee Police Department by 60 to 1,804 officers. The reduction would be made through attrition, not layoffs, and comes as the department’s overall budget holds nearly even with its 2019 level due to raises.

Multiple amendments to restore up to 30 of the police positions failed, with a number of council members stating they had heard from the community that scarce resources should be invested in other violence prevention and public health initiatives.

Community groups, including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, had spent the past few months pushing for a $25 million cut for the department. That didn’t happen, but many council amendments added to violence prevention initiatives.

The total property tax levy will grow to $291 million under the council’s budget, with the city’s tax rate falling by one cent per $1,000 of assessed value to $10.58. The growth in the levy is due to a larger property tax base, through increased assessments and new construction.

Under the council’s budget, an owner of the average Milwaukee home ($117,000 appraised value) will see their property tax bill increase $37 due to growing home values and a fees increase (for water, sewers, etc.) of approximately $23. The council added a cumulative fee increase of $1 over Mayor Tom Barrett‘s budget proposal.

Four factors are combining to put city officials in an increasingly difficult place: the rising costs of public safety, a quickly growing need to contribute more to the city’s pension system, state restrictions on raising revenue and declining revenue sharing from the state.

The property tax levy is again exceeded by the cost of the Milwaukee Police Department, a factor that has held consistent since 2016. The remainder of the city’s revenue is derived from fees, shared revenue and charges for services.

In 2020, the city will contribute approximately $70 million to maintain the pension as fully funded as the city charter requires. Approximately 80 percent of that will go to support public safety employees that are exempt from Act 10.

The city’s annual pension contribution is expected to more than double in four years, consuming an additional $90 million annually. Alderman Michael Murphy warned Friday that the city’s actuarial consultant predicted that if the stock market drops, the annual contribution could climb to $120 million.

State law both caps the city’s property tax levy with few exceptions and prevents it from raising new revenue from other sources including a sales tax or income tax. An even greater problem is that state budget allocations have reduced the amount of shared revenue sent to Milwaukee and other municipalities since 2003, with no adjustments for inflation. A city report notes that if the city received its 2003 allotment adjusted for inflation it would have received $333.9 million in 2018; instead it received $228.2 million, an effective annual loss of $105.7 million.

The budget proposal includes $21 million to perform lead abatement, including replacing lead laterals. This amount is in line with what the city included in the 2019 budget.

Robert Donovan and Mark Borkowski were the only council members to vote against the final budget.

Dozens of Budget Amendments

The council adopted 59 amendments to the budget, including a large omnibus amendment.

The omnibus amendment includes $300,000 for 10 units of emergency housing, $240,000 for a lead-safe kit program for mothers leaving the hospital (Birthing Moms pilot project), $20,000 for marketing trauma informed care, funding for a full-time healthy food access coordinator, a four-person crew for restore biweekly street sweeping, $72,000 to raise pay to $11 per hour for Earn & Learn program participants, $128,000 for garbage cans and $110,000 for addressing reckless driving. Funding ($100,000) to establish a participatory budgeting program was dropped as part of an amendment.

Funding for the omnibus proposal came from a variety of sources, including eliminating $110,000 intended as operating support for Bublr Bikes, increasing the stormwater fee by 1.15 percent ($433,600), reducing borrowing by $300,000 for replacement police cars, expanding the city’s borrowing ($240,000) and cutting the police overtime budget by approximately $145,000.

“We’ve attempted to be fiscally responsible with how we’ve done it,” said Finance & Personnel Committee chair Milele A. Coggs. The alderwoman orchestrated the deal, repeatedly modifying it over the past two budget meetings to address council member concerns.

But council members Tony Zielinski and Nik Kovac both pointed out that cutting the police overtime, budgeted at over $17 million, is not guaranteed. The chief can utilize overtime at his discretion and send the council a bill. Zielinski warned that with the positions being cut the problem could get worse.

MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato told the finance committee last week that the spending level is consistent with the work being necessary for event security, including approximately $800,000 for the growing police presence at Summerfest, addressing staffing shortages and long hours for officers and detectives during high-profile investigations.

“We all are being asked to do more with less,” said Coggs of the overtime cut’s inclusion.

Council members Donovan, Borkowski and Scott Spiker voted against the omnibus proposal. Murphy said much lawmaking is often like sausage making, but in this case he believed the council had created a souffle.

Murphy, Donovan and Borkowski collectively had introduced different amendments to restore between 20 and 30 positions to the police department by increasing the tax levy. City budget director Dennis Yaccarino had previously warned in a committee meeting that doing so would reduce the percentage increase allowed in future budgets.

The amendments to increase the number of officers failed on a consistent 6-9 vote with only Donovan, Murphy, Borkowski, Jose G. Perez, Scott Spiker and Zielinski voting in favor.

An amendment from Murphy, Kovac, Borkowski and council president Ashanti Hamilton reallocated a proportional amount from each city department to fund the $104,481 police ambassador program within MPD. “They deprioritized something so important to the direction we want them to go. It’s shocking to me,” said Kovac, faulting the police department for not including the program in its budget. The program creates paid positions for young adults to work side-by-side with officers and other MPD employees.

The council also allocated $300,000 to support funding the Office of Violence Prevention’s violence interrupters programs by reducing an equal amount from the police overtime budget. The amendment was sponsored by Lewis, Coggs, Hamilton, Russell W. Stamper, II, Cavalier Johnson and Kovac. “The only way to prevent crime is to work to prevent crime,” said Lewis.

An amendment to raid $50,130 from the city’s lead service line replacement program and hire a full-time marketing liaison for the council within the City Clerk‘s office was withdrawn by Alderwoman Chantia Lewis without explanation.

A universal basic income amendment backed by Lewis and Kovac also was amended to have its funding cut. The proposal mirrored a Stockton, CA program that is paying a select group of residents $500 per month.

The $100,000 in property tax dollars that passed out of committee for this program was removed on the council floor. “It’s a new day to enact radical social change,” said Lewis. “If the private funds could not be raised, then the program would be eliminated. This would not be another Bublr incident where they come back and say ‘oops we need to be part of a line item.'” She said no city tax dollars would go to the program.

The council also backed an additional $200,000 to support the Community Oriented Policing (COP House) initiatives it backed last year. The funds would advance the opening of four houses the council originally funded with $375,000 in the 2019 budget. Barrett vetoed the provision last year, but the council overrode the veto.

A total of $1.2 million will be placed into a dedicated fund for multimodal transportation improvements targeted at traffic safety improvements for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. The council amended the proposal on the floor to take $500,000 from a Department of Public Works sidewalk repair account that the department said it would be unable to spend because of a contractor shortage.

Alderwoman Nikiya Dodd successfully introduced an amendment to fund a part-time recruiter in the Fire & Police Commission. She also secured passage of an amendment that delayed a police recruiting class by one pay period to fund a “testing coordinator” and provide $50,000 in increased funding for testing for the position. MPD has had difficulty hiring for higher ranking positions because of a lack of candidates that have tested for the positions. Donovan, Borkowski and Spiker objected.

Another approved amendment cut $240,000 from MPD’s computer replacement program to restore a proposed 10 minute shortening of the time the city turns on street lights in the morning. “This is just one indication of how pathetic this budget is and the choices this council is forced to make,” said Donovan. Kovac, Lewis and Dodd voted against the amendment.

Donovan was voting on his last budget as a member of the council. He is not seeking re-election. “Boy oh boy, am I glad I’m on my way out. I don’t envy my colleagues with what you’re going to have to go through in the next couple of years here,” said the south-side alderman.

Barrett’s proposal to contribute $8 million to the pension reserve fund and reduce the impact of future pension contributions was not amended by the council.

The mayor has until November 19th to issue any budget vetoes.

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