Graham Kilmer
MKE County

You Can Help Decide County Budget

Budget town halls allow citizen opinions. Online tool lets you pick how to balance budget.

By - Aug 24th, 2020 02:55 pm

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

Milwaukee County will offer a handful of opportunities for citizens to weigh in on next year’s budget before the county executive or board of supervisors begin releasing proposals.

Community budget participation is two-pronged. First there are budget open-houses that let residents share their ideas directly to the policy makers that will draft the annual budget. Secondly,  there’s a tool, accessible online, called Balancing Act, which allows residents to tinker with ways to balance the budget on their own. County officials look at the results from Balancing Act to see what county residents prioritize.

As we head into the final months of 2020, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley’s administration continues to project a massive deficit for the 2021 budget that will need to be overcome. The latest estimates announced by Crowley and budget planners show they expect a budget deficit of $42 million.

This means, before the first budget proposal is drawn up, planners are faced with a substantial gap in financing for the county’s many departments and services. County governments have been faced with this scenario, to varying degrees, for at least a decade. It has led to successive years of cuts.

In 2019, then County Executive Chris Abele released his budget proposal for 2020 and noted that since 2010, Milwaukee County had made $278 million in cuts to county government. Abele didn’t mince words, saying, “Taken in sum, they pose very real threats to the quality of life for Milwaukee County residents.”

This is all the more true now, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which Milwaukee County has spent millions reacting to, and Crowley’s mandate to tackle systemic racism and injustice in Milwaukee County. Crowley delivered a speech in early August outlining his goals for his administration. In it, he said, “Without solving our fiscal issues… We will not be able to address our racial inequities, improve the health of our community or become the community we aspire to be.”

Crowley and his budget planners gave county department heads targets for tax levy reductions, which amount to budget cuts for each office and agency. But it won’t be enough to close the gap. 

A significant impediment to Milwaukee County’s annual budget is the shared-revenue system used by the state. County leaders have demonstrated in recent years that significant economic growth has increased the county’s revenue contributions to the state through sales and income taxes collected in the county year-over-year, but the county has seen the revenue sent back to them from the state stagnate, even decline some years. State aids haven’t even kept up with inflation.

The Abele and Crowley administrations have lobbied state legislators to pass legislation allowing Milwaukee County to increase the local sales tax. Even the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a respected non-partisan think tank, advocated in 2019 for a sales tax increase in Milwaukee County.

So significant cuts are surely coming. The open houses and the budget tools are ways for citizens to engage in the process and help guide county officials.

“Once again, we are asking residents to get involved in the budget process to make their priorities known and help us make the decisions necessary to move Milwaukee County forward on our path towards achieving racial equity,” Crowley said said in a statement.

The online Balancing Act tool has been simplified this year, the county executive’s statement said, in hopes this will lead to broader participation from the public. Balancing Act gives county officials hard data on the services the public values most. It can be accessed here.

The budget town halls will be mostly virtual this year, because of the pandemic, though one of them will also have an in-person option for those that can’t participate by phone or internet. The county asks those that want to make a comment to register at least 24 hours before before the meeting starts.

Budget Town halls

  • Tuesday, Aug. 25 at 9:00 a.m. This meeting is entirely virtual. Details and Registration at this link.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 2 at noon. This meeting is entirely virtual. Details and Registration at this link.
  • Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 6:00 p.m. You can join this meeting online, or in person if you don’t have internet access. Details and Registration at this link.

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Categories: MKE County, Politics

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