Committee Recommends Few Budget Amendments
No fee increases and few changes as council braces for next year's fiscal cliff.
It seems that way. The Finance & Personnel Committee scheduled two full days to debate budget amendments, but finished shortly after 2 p.m. on day one.
The committee reviewed 35 amendments, down 24% from a pandemic-altered 2020 process and 64% from 2019.
Still, committee chair Michael Murphy thanked members for undertaking what he said was effectively two budget processes this year. Why?
That’s because the council also undertook a nearly simultaneous process to allocate $197 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. It had more than $1 billion in ideas, spread across 82 proposals.
Last week a grand bargain was reached on the ARPA funding, which, coupled with two budget amendments endorsed Thursday, allows the city to add $30 million to its pension reserve fund and avoid drastically cutting police staffing. Other ARPA funding will go towards plugging budget holes, housing, combating reckless driving, violence prevention and lead abatement.
That leaves the 35 budget amendments for the council to consider when it meets next week. The committee is only endorsing a handful of them.
City Attorney Issues
With high turnover in Spencer’s office and frequent disagreements, the committee endorsed an amendment by Ald. Jose G. Perez to cut one vacant assistant city attorney position and use the funding for the council to hire its own attorney. The move would largely mirror a move completed earlier this year to assign an attorney directly to the Department of City Development.
Murphy repeatedly said he was “frustrated” with the lack of staffing assigned to support DNS, but withdrew his amendment.
Ald. Scott Spiker introduced an amendment to cut a vacant ACA position and fund a new position to deal with salary studies in the Department of Employee Relations. But despite being backed by DER director Makda Fessahaye, Spiker was the only member to vote for his amendment.
Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs secured unanimous support to continue the Healing Spaces initiative. Launched in 2021 and backed by Bader Philanthropies, the program is intended to create rest and relaxation spaces from vacant city lots.
“The first eight are all in the Harambee neighborhood because that’s the specific of what Bader wanted, but we got applications from all over the city,” said Coggs.
Now the program would go citywide. “The benefits have just been tremendous,” said Coggs, who noted that neighbors have seen a reduction in speeding near one lot that now includes large sculptures.
The adopted amendment adds $50,000 to the approximately $300 million property tax levy, but budget director Dennis Yaccarino said he would work to find an alternative funding source.
Spiker, the Garden District representative, got the committee to endorse a $25,000 proposal to pilot wildflower plantings adjacent to two city streets designated at state highways.
The proposal is intended to allow the Department of Public Works to experiment with a lower maintenance option than grass. Changes at the state level have reduced the amount of funding available to mow the areas.
The alderman warned that it won’t be pretty initially. The beds are expected to take three to five years to take hold. Murphy and Coggs signed on as co-sponsors.
The funding will come from the Sewer Maintenance Fund. “It’s such a small amount we are going to get it out of existing funds,” said Yaccarino of avoiding the need to raise the associated sewer fee.
The committee endorsed a proposal championed by Alderman Cavalier Johnson to use $6.05 million to hire three police recruiting classes totaling 195 new officers. Barrett had proposed to use ARPA funding to hire the officers, but the council swapped that with fire department funding for effectively the same result.
The budget will still reduce the sworn strength of the Milwaukee Police Department by 25 officers over the course of the year, a factor that is almost entirely driven by the rising salaries for union-protected officers and revenue limits on the city.
Ald. Nik Kovac said he has both fiscal and philosophical concerns. “When you have half your budget you refuse to cut, that means you have to cut the other half double,” he said of the city’s recent trend in budgeting. But he ultimately voted for the measure, in part because the new recruits would be more diverse than the current force.
Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa thanked constituents for reaching out with their concerns about police funding. “I hope they don’t think it fell on deaf ears, because it has not,” she said. She voted for it as well.
Coggs abstained. “I don’t want us taking a placebo, like these few more cops are going to take care of all the problems we see on the streets,” she said.
The alderwoman, as well as other members, expressed frustration that the $300,000 the city agreed to provide Milwaukee County to support its CART program that pairs officers with psychiatric clinicians is only just starting to move forward.
Kovac successfully introduced a proposal that reassigned $400,000 within the department to hire 10 police service investigators to work vehicle theft cases. Currently police officers take reports and investigate the thefts, “which probably isn’t the best use of a badge and a gun,” said the alderman.
The non-sworn officers, often retired officers, will serve as a less costly method to address the surge in vehicle thefts. “I stole this one from Spiker,” said the Kovac of his inspiration. MPD will absorb the cost by adjusting personnel costs throughout the year.
Slashing The Fire Department
While the looming fiscal cliff is the elephant in the room, Ald. Robert Bauman attempted to give it the spotlight. He is proposing to eliminate two engine companies, totaling 30 firefighters, from the Milwaukee Fire Department.
He would use $2.9 million in savings to bolster the pension reserve fund.
“So I figure why don’t we start this process of downsizing rather than waiting,” said Bauman of the looming cliff.
Bauman said he saw the chief earlier in the day and he didn’t mention it, so he must be for it.
“I quite frankly think you are unnecessarily accelerating what is going to be a bad situation,” said Chief Aaron Lipski.
Without a drastic increase in revenue, the city will need to cut at least $70 million per year in spending starting in 2023.
“I think there is a bit of denial going on here,” said Bauman. “Sooner or later you’re going to see massive cuts to the Milwaukee Fire Department and yes the personnel that are left are going to be really tired and overworked.”
Kovac and Zamarripa thanked him for bringing the fiscal cliff to the floor, then voted against his idea. As did everyone else on the committee.
The proposal is an about-face for Bauman, who voted against the entire 2018 budget after unsuccessfully seeking to save a fire station in his district.
But with Johnson’s ARPA accounting trick and a $10 million allocation proposed by Barrett, the pension reserve fund will have $82 million in it going into 2023.
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