Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Budget Testimony Includes Repeated Ask For $75 Million Police Cut

Two-thirds of those that testified at preliminary budget hearing want funds to go towards health, housing.

By - Aug 27th, 2020 05:39 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The attendees for Milwaukee’s first hearing of the 2021 budget process had a clear message – reallocate funding from the Milwaukee Police Department towards other public health efforts.

The two-hour preliminary budget hearing featured a half-hour presentation by Mayor Tom Barrett, budget director Dennis Yaccarino and Common Council finance committee chair Michael Murphy.

Over 30 people gave testimony at the virtual hearing, with 21 of them having a clear ask: reallocate $75 million away from the approximately $300 million police budget. The police department represents approximately 45 percent of the city’s general fund and just under 20 percent of the overall budget.

“It goes without saying that this is going to be the most challenging budget we have faced in the City of Milwaukee in perhaps decades,” said Barrett on Wednesday night. “Even before COVID-19, even before the economic tsunami, even before the battle for racial justice… we were projecting to have a very, very serious budget.”

The city is being squeezed in four directions: the rising costs of public safety, a quickly growing need to fund the city’s pension system, state restrictions on raising revenue and declining revenue sharing from the state.

Starting in 2016, the city has spent more on the police department than it collects in property tax revenue. And the city can’t raise taxes at its discretion to catch up, the state government enacted a property tax cap. At the same time, state aid has declined, from $250 million in 2003 to $229 million in 2019. The biennial state budget has grown from $23 billion to $37 billion over the same period.

“As the revenue for the state has gone up, the aid has gone down,” said Barett. “And that puts us in a totally unsustainable position.” If the 2003 number was adjusted for inflation and otherwise held constant, the city would be receiving more than $100 million per year in additional aid.

Yaccarino said when he started with the city two decades ago approximately 40 percent of the city’s budget came from state aid. Now it’s 23 percent. At the same time, the city’s pension funding needs continue to go up. A five-year smoothing model used by the city projects the annual pension funding requirement to grow from $80 million to at least $160 million in 2023, with much of that money going towards pensions for public safety employees that are exempt from Act 10. The budget office said in 2019 that much of that increase could be attributed to a half-percent decrease in expected investment return from eight percent to 7.5 percent.

The $75 million request comes from the group LiberateMKE and is a substantial step forward from what was considered a significant proposal last year from Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) to reallocate $25 million away from the police department.

LiberateMKE’s ask includes $50 million going towards public health efforts, including violence prevention. An additional $25 million would go towards affordable housing efforts.

“I come in great urgency demanding divestiture of $75 million from the Milwaukee Police Department budget,” said African-American Roundtable leader Markasa Tucker.

Her request was backed by a wide range of speakers, including Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association leader Amy Mizialko, Metcalfe Park Community Bridges deputy director Melody McCurtis and board of health member Ruthie Weatherly.

“The police have shown the Black and brown communities of Milwaukee that they are incapable of helping them,” said Weatherly.

Community organizer and activist Vaun Mayes echoed the call for a cut. “I believe the Fire and Police Commission needs more resources,” said Mayes, who also called for more funding for the Office of Violence Prevention and community partners working in the area, including his group Community Task Force MKE.

Paul Mozina, civic watchdog and opponent of the War on Drugs, said the city would not be able to move forward until it recognized the destructive nature that anti-drug policing policies have on the city. He chided Barrett for voting for the 1994 crime bill when he was in Congress.

No speakers indicated support for increasing the police department’s budget. The only other group with multiple commenters was the Milwaukee Food Council, whose members called for protecting and expanding a healthy food access program.

“I think you can see from the comments tonight… the police budget is going to be a big conversation piece,” said Barrett. “Democracy works best when everybody gets involved and I want to thank everybody for getting involved.”

That conversation is likely to ramp up even before a formal budget proposal is delivered in late September. Yaccarino’s office is scheduled to fulfill a unanimous council request on Sept. 16 for a model of what a 10 percent, approximately $30 million reallocation of resources from the police department would look like.

Barrett is scheduled to present his executive budget proposal in late September. The Common Council would spend the next month reviewing it and making amendments, with a final adoption in early November. The Mayor could then veto specific provisions that the council could sustain or override in late November.

Testimony at Wednesday’s hearing was cut off at 7 p.m. when the meeting was scheduled to end. Each speaker was restricted to two minutes. Residents are encouraged to submit responses to a budget survey and use an interactive budget simulation tool to voice their opinions on budget priorities and indicate how they would close the budget gap. Additional opportunities for public testimony will occur after the executive budget is introduced.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

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