Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Officials Want SEWRPC Changes

Milwaukee pays more for less representation. But proposal could hurt effort to build state coalition for tax levy limits.

By - Sep 21st, 2020 05:03 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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Committees of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors approved two resolutions this month that seek to change the county’s relationship with the area’s regional planning commission.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, or SEWRPC, is the publicly funded agency that assists governments in the area with addressing and planning public works projects.

SEWRPC has worked on — and provided guidance on — many of the major public works projects in the regions, like highway projects and flood mitigation and long-term regional master plans.

Both resolutions were sponsored by Sup. Joe Czarnezki, and received a number of co-sponsors on the board. And they both call upon the Legislature to make changes at the state level, as the membership and tax support of regional planning commissions are governed by state statute.

The first resolution, introduced earlier this month at the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, calls upon the state to alter the proportional make up of regional planning commissions. Right now, each county that is part of the commission has three representatives.

But Czarnezki wants the state to change that, so that representatives are accorded to counties based upon population. SEWRPC levies a tax on county taxpayers each year to fund its operations, so Czarnezki believes this requires a more representative makeup of who funds and is served by the commission. “One of the fundamental principles of representative government is one person one vote,” he said.

Nearly half of the region’s population lives in Milwaukee County, he said. And of the total funding that the seven member counties provided to the commission in 2020, Milwaukee County provided nearly a third of it.

The committee unanimously adopted Czarnezki’s resolution. But a week later, the Finance Committee approved another resolution related to SEWRPC that could be negated by this effort to alter representation.

Donna Brown-Martin, director of transportation for Milwaukee County Department of Transportation, said she thought the resolution had the potential to harm the county’s relationship with SEWRPC and therefore hurt the county if it loses access to the assistance it gets from the commission with transportation and land use planning.

Czarnezki told Brown-Martin he was “not optimistic” that the Legislature would change the representation of counties on planning commissions “under any circumstances.” He said, “So I don’t think you need to worry about it.”

But Brown-Martin also said that pursuing the resolution could hamper their efforts to build a coalition around another resolution that the board’s Finance Committee approved. This one — also sponsored by Czarnezki — asks the state not to hold the taxes levied by the planning commission against the county’s statutory levy limit.

So, in 2020, SEWRPC levied a tax on Milwaukee County totaling $782,635. This counted against the county’s own levy limit, reducing, by that amount, the revenue it can generate for county-run services.

The second resolution asks the state to change this.

Brown-Martin said this move could generate support among counties all over the state. She said a number of associations have already advocated for such a move. But Czarnezki’s attempt to redraw representation on regional planning commissions “actually contradicts and presents real opportunities for us to hurt our partnership building process,” she argued. 

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