Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Exec Candidates Discuss Fiscal Crisis

Lipscomb, Larson, Crowley and Nath present their vision for addressing Milwaukee County's fiscal challenges.

By - Jan 30th, 2020 03:11 pm
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2020 County Executive Primary Candidates. Left to right: State Sen. Chris Larson, State Rep. David Crowley, County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr., and businessperson Purnima Nath.

Four candidates will be on the ballot for the February 18th primary for Milwaukee County Executive.

State Rep. David Crowley, State Sen. Chris Larson, County Board Chair Theodore Lipscomb, Sr., and local business person Purnima Nath have been making the rounds at a number of community events.

Jim Sullivan, director of Child Support Services for Milwaukee County and Bryan Kennedy, Mayor of Glendale, were dropped from the ballot after the Court of Appeals upheld a Wisconsin Elections Commission decision to reject their nomination signatures for using the same circulators.

Larson, Lipscomb and Nath recently participated in a Wisconsin Policy Forum panel discussion on their vision for Milwaukee County. Urban Milwaukee reached out to Crowley, who was in Madison the night of the event, to allow the candidate to provide his answers in a written format.

The order of the candidate answers is the order they were given the night of the panel.

Below is a paraphrased selection of the questions asked during the WPF debate.  For brevity, the responses from candidates are excerpted and paraphrased.

1. Why do you want to be County Executive?

Lipscomb: Lipscomb started his response by joking, Well, because Sen. Larson encouraged me to run… We’re friends, I’m friends with a number of the candidates.” But in seriousness, he went on with a description of the ethos of his campaign as a quest for better opportunity for Milwaukee County residents.

He noted that he and his wife are both from Milwaukee, but have seen family leave to pursue opportunities in other parts of the country. “I really feel that it’s incumbent upon our future that we address this, that we make sure Milwaukee County works for all,” he said.

Larson: Larson said his running for County Executive was not a given, despite having already campaigned for it in 2016. 

He wants to be County Executive, he said, because of the problems in Milwaukee County. His pitch is that he is the one to take it on. “If we don’t address the need for our parks, if we finally don’t get dedicated funding for transit, if we are not addressing homelessness, both chronic and family and otherwise, if we’re not doing those now, it’s gonna fall on our kids.”

“I wanna make sure we’re addressing those head on, and that’s why I’m running.”

Nath: To answer this question, Nath invoked her immigrant story, as she did in the announcement of her campaign. She railed against divisiveness in Milwaukee County, and held the news media partly to blame. “I’ve seen our community dragged down into divisiveness, bitterness, it doesn’t bring anybody together. There’s another part of it, media takes full advantage of negativity. Negativity sells, positivity doesn’t.”

She also applauded County Executive Chris Abele for “a tremendous amount of work.” Nath said she will bring a new perspective moving forward to address the structural fiscal problems facing Milwaukee County.

Crowley: As a kid, Crowley was raised in a family that struggled and relied on County services to survive, he said. “I know personally what a difference access to these services can make for a struggling family.”

Crowley went on to say there is a “tale of two counties,” in the Milwaukee area. Some of the county is growing and thriving, while another part is struggling to get by, he said. His candidacy is about bridging the gap. “I believe I am the best candidate to bring this community together to address the many issues that we face.”

2. What would you do to address Milwaukee County’s persistent structural deficit?

Nath: Nath explained that she believes her background in business management and consulting gives her an edge in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of organizations. She said, as County Executive, she would look at Milwaukee County “department by department” and look for “wastage”.

“In order to implement any solution which is efficient and effective we need to start from ground zero,” she said.

Larson: “I will say that one of the biggest worries I had once I heard Chris’ announcement that he wasn’t running was that he had gotten a new budget projection, and was like ‘Alright, I’m done with that. Let somebody else figure it out,’” Larson joked.

Larson said entering the office will be like entering a marriage already on the rocks. “We’re gonna have to have cuts, we’re gonna have to deal with parks being limited, and we’re gonna have to deal with more problems with transit.”

Larson said it will be important to leverage the state and reach out to the federal government for funding.

Lipscomb: Lipscomb noted that anything done to address the issue will require working with the board. He then leaned on his 10 years of experience serving on the county board, including the last four as chairman.

He also touted the “Fair Deal,” which is an initiative spearheaded by Lipscomb and Abele that seeks to find additional revenue for Milwaukee County. He repeated an oft shared statistic from the “Fair Deal,” “We are sending more to Madison, almost half a billion dollars more [than 10 years ago]… and getting less back.”

Crowley: For his answer, Crowley shared the same statistic Lipscomb did. He added: “To fix issues in Milwaukee County, it is essential that we focus on greater local control.” He said Milwaukee County needs to be able to “raise our own revenues and fix our own problems”.

Crowley said he would work with other municipalities and counties to make local control a “72 county strategy for change.”

3. Do you support the Fair Deal? If it doesn’t happen, what else can county government do?

Lipscomb: “The need for the fair deal is clear,” Lipscomb said. He went on to say the Fair Deal is a solution at scale. Putting parking meters in parks, or raising the wheel tax, do not address Milwaukee County’s revenue problems long term, he said.

“It addresses the fact that we do have among the highest property taxes. That we have a relatively low sales tax compared to other communities around the country. But that fundamentally we need new revenue.”

Nath: Nath said it’s worth asking why the state does not cooperate with Milwaukee County on their revenue needs. She said she believes the funding Milwaukee County gets is not going to the right resources.

Nath, the only conservative candidate, said the state, with it’s purse strings held by a Republican-controlled Legislature, likely didn’t trust Milwaukee County. She pointed to conservative counties like Waukesha and Walworth saying, “They may have more trust there than here.”

Larson: “I’d like to say that I supported the Fair Deal before it was the fair deal,” said Larson. He said was fighting for “dedicated funding for transit, for parks, for emergency medical services with a corresponding property tax reduction and a 1 percent sales tax back, 11 years ago.”

Larson said the county needs more and new sources of revenue. But added, “I do think that the Fair Deal, while I support it, is probably not gonna pass this time.” He also said that making local control of revenue an issue for the entire state is the way to make the Fair Deal happen.

Crowley: Crowley said he supports the Fair Deal, but “it’s not the end all be all and we have to be realistic about the current legislature.” He once again noted the importance of making it a statewide issue.

“In the meantime, we have to get creative,” he said. Crowley said he would establish a County office that searches for “federal, foundation, and state resources that other jurisdictions are effectively tapping, but which we are currently leaving on the table.”

4. How would you balance the budget without the ‘Fair Deal’?

Larson: “I’m reluctant on the wheel tax,” he said. “And on the property tax, we’ve been relying way too much on it.” Larson also noted a few options for new revenue, though they would require enabling legislation from the state level. One was a payroll tax. And the other was the levying of special assessments like those in Denver, Colorado. In Denver, these assessments are property taxes applied to properties within a Local Improvement District.

Lipscomb: Lipscomb pointed to the last few budgets he worked on, saying “they were a bridge to when we could get a solution.” The County Board, and County Executive, did the best with available resources and revenue, said the board chair. This meant compromises, like the $30 wheel tax in 2016.

Ultimately Lipscomb’s point was that he would continue his work balancing the budget each year as County Executive. He also said, “There needs to be serious concentration on the Fair Deal.”

“It’s not just the sales tax,” he said regarding the “Fair Deal”. “It’s a myriad of ways in which the state essentially cheats the county.” An example being that Milwaukee is the only county in Wisconsin that pays the cost of patrolling state expressways.

Nath: Nath once again said the county should work to build relationships with state leaders to “understand their perspective, too.” She said the state is “acting as a guard” against wasteful spending in Milwaukee County.

Nath went on to say that Milwaukee County is “burdened by all kinds of taxes.”

“Whether it’s wheel tax… or property tax, or even now sales tax we’re talking about. The next thing that’s going to come is Uber and Lyft tax.”

Crowley: Even with a Fair Deal, Crowley said, Milwaukee County will face financial difficulties in the future. To that end, Crowley wants to establish the new County Office he previously mentioned. He also said, he would establish a working group with leadership from the County Board to look at the county budget and “work through ideas and proposals for how we can cut costs while preserving services.”

Crowley also said, pushing for an accurate count during the upcoming census will be a top priority of his administration. “Milwaukee County is already designated as a hard to count area and every individual we count will have a ten-year positive financial impact on the county government and every municipality in Milwaukee County.”

5. In light of Milwaukee County’s nearly half-billion-dollar capital project backlog, can it afford its capital footprint? Can it afford to maintain and repair its infrastructure?

Nath: Nath said she would like to look into reducing the county’s footprint. “If there is a way to repair, we should. If there is a way to transfer this liability elsewhere, we should look into it. All options are on the table at this point.”

Lipscomb: Lipscomb noted that along with getting out of over one million square feet of space under Abele, the county has also started to lease space. “So there’s also a fundamental question there about whether ownership long term or leasing, which is the right model?”

As an example, he used the new criminal courthouse the county needs to build, which is expected to cost $300 million or more. He posed the question of which model is right for the county.

He also said, “I don’t think there’s a reasonable claim that we need sufficiently less space. Our services have not shrunk to the extent that we can substantially get out of much of the space that we occupy.”

Larson: “I want to say that we’ll take a look at what we’ve got, what can be sold,” he said. “I will say that the first pledge that I made, upon running for this office is that we are not selling any of our parks.”

Larson said that shedding costly buildings to save money makes sense, but “I don’t want to do it at the barrel of a gun.”

Crowley: “The County’s footprint is too large and needs to change,” Crowley said. Crowley said he would continue the efforts of County Executive Chris Abele to resize the County’s “spralling [sic] footprint” by looking at areas for consolidation as well as growth.

He also said he would partner with “Cities, villages, school districts and Milwaukee Area Technical College campuses to examine areas for collaboration and colocation.”

Editor’s note: Jim Sullivan participated in the panel discussion, but Urban Milwaukee has dropped his responses as he did not qualify for the election.

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Categories: MKE County, Politics

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