Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Adopts 2022 Budget of $1.2 Billon

Rising sales tax revenue plugs budget deficit. Federal ARPA funds largely saved for future investments.

By - Nov 10th, 2021 10:06 am

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

The Milwaukee County Board adopted a $1.2 billion annual budget for 2022 on Monday.

This budget represents an approximately 8% increase from the 2021 budget. For the second year in a row, the county also increased the number of full-time employees, though it’s just seven new positions, after 30 years of personnel cuts.

Despite a $20 million structural budget deficit in 2022, the county managed to balance the budget without making significant cuts to county services or laying off any county workers. The budget also includes a 2% across-the-board increase in pay for county employees and, thanks to a board budget amendment, changes to the employee dental plan that would have negated the pay increase were eliminated.

This was achieved through savings on healthcare costs, pulling funds from the county’s debt service reserve, and help from rising sales tax revenues and federal COVID-19 grant funds.

One star of the county’s 2022 budget was sales tax revenue. The 2022 budget gap was closed in large part due to unexpectedly high sales tax revenue. Current rates of inflation are likely playing a role in rising sales tax revenue. Though the Office of the Comptroller warns in a budget analysis that “a sustained period of higher inflation” would “further exacerbate the annual structural budget deficit.”

The county did receive a $183 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), though both the county executive and the board largely avoided tapping into this federal funding. The county board previously created an ARPA Task Force to determine how those funds are spent.

The budget increases the tax levy in 2022 by 1.81% and stays within the levy limits imposed by state statute. Through amendments, supervisors lowered the tax levy by approximately $116,000 from the county executive’s recommended budget.

County Executive David Crowley made some significant organizational changes to county government in his recommended 2022 budget, much of which was aimed at bolstering the county’s equity goals. An independent analysis of the budget by the Office of the Comptroller states, “The Recommended Budget makes a deliberate and successful effort to elevate and prioritize racial equity and health to the forefront of county decision making and backs that up with investments across the board.”

Despite successfully closing a budget gap with minimal effects on county services, the structural problems undergirding the county’s finances remain. Without additional revenue from the state, or the ability to raise more revenue locally — the preferred mechanism being an increase in the local sales tax — the county is headed for financial disaster before the decade is over.

Equity

The 2022 budget makes a number of investments in the county’s mission to achieve racial equity. The budget was developed using a “racial equity budget tool” intended to help the administration and the county board support the county’s strategic plan in the budget.

The budget includes $2.5 million to reduce racial and gender pay inequity among county employees.

Organizationally, the budget makes two significant changes to the makeup of county government. It creates a new cabinet level department called Strategy, Budget and Performance that will work across county departments to link the county’s strategic vision to ongoing budget functions. It also changes the Office of African American Affairs (OAAA) to the Office of Equity, expanding the previous racial equity goals and initiatives made by OAAA, according to the comptroller analysis. An amendment approved by the county board created a staff position that will work on racial inequities specifically related to Black county residents.

Parks

Milwaukee County Parks saw its budget increased for the second year in a row, avoiding major service reductions. The 2022 budget, $40.2 million, is $4.6 million higher than the budget in 2021.

The department received a boost from an omnibus amendment making changes to several areas of the county budget. The amendment provided parks with an additional $1.9 million. The majority of the funding, $1.6 million, was provided with general guidelines that the department develop a plan to spend it on aquatics facilities, maintenance, communications, seasonal staffing, technology or lighting. Approximately $286,000 would create six new park rangers positions, and $90,000 would pay for installing traffic slowing infrastructure in parkways around the county.

The department, whose budget increasingly relies on the revenues generated by parks attractions, will raise fees at county golf courses in 2022 to generate an additional $145,000.

Another budget amendment, sponsored by Supervisors Ryan Clancy and Jason Haas took $1.6 million in bonding authority budgeted for repairs to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office Training Academy parking lot and redirects the money to replace the aging playgrounds at South Shore Park, and to provide funding to replace “high priority mowers, trailers and vehicles.”

An amendment from Sup. Joseph Czarnezki successfully allocated $300,000 to build a pickleball court out of the tennis courts at Froemming Park.

Transit

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) was buoyed by federal COVID-19 grants in 2021, helping it weather by a $32.7 million cut to state transit aid by the state Legislature in the biennial budget. Thanks to the federal funding, the 2022 budget makes no cuts to transit.

The comptroller’s office notes in its analysis that approximately $71.9 million of COVID-19 grants “will preserve transit operations” in 2022. However, these funds will be exhausted by 2024, and potentially even by 2023.

Were it not for the federal funding, the transit system would have likely seen significant cuts. The system experienced a major drop in ridership when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, exacerbating a pre-existing trend of declining ridership. Even without declining ridership, state transit funding, like other state aids to the county, have been insufficient to maintain existing service levels for the past decade.

Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sees its budget increased by more than $7 million in 2022 to $150.7 million. It also sees a restructuring intended to streamline services under the department’s No Wrong Door service delivery model, with two systems of care for adult and child oriented programs.

The budget will see the Housing Division work with the House of Correction to provide “housing navigation services” for people coming out of incarceration; this reflects the county’s goal of reducing the commitment of delinquent youth to state juvenile prisons and reinvesting this funding in community programs including the Credible Messengers, Youth Employment and Support for Girls programs.

The Right to Counsel program, which provides legal counsel to county residents facing eviction, received $2.7 million.

The Behavioral Health Division (BHD) budget includes $3.3 million to fund the startup costs for the new Mental Health Emergency Center (MHEC) being built at 1525 N. 12th St.. It also includes $1.8 million to pay for bonuses and retention payments for staff affected by the transition from the BHD mental health complex on Watertown Plank Road to the MHEC and a new inpatient hospital in West Allis.

Public Safety

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) budget was the subject of much debate during this budget process. 

For the second year, Sup. Clancy attempted to reallocate the funding budget for the MCSO to other county services and projects. This year, he was joined by Supervisors Sequanna Taylor and Priscilla E. Coggs-Jones in sponsoring some of the amendments. While the vast majority of them failed, the effort was more successful than the previous year when Clancy went after the Sheriff’s overtime budget.

Two amendments reduced funding for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. One took nearly $700,000 away from a project to put cameras up for surveillance of Bradford Beach and instead rolled it into dental benefits for county employees. The other was the amendment diverting capital funding for the training academy parking lot to the parks department.

Some supervisors that voted against Clancy’s amendments did so because they fundamentally did not agree with reducing the budget for the sheriff’s office. While others noted that cuts to the sheriff’s budget would only increase the annual deficit in the sheriff’s office, Sup. Shawn Rolland was the most insistent throughout the budget process, explaining that cuts to the sheriff’s budget in 2022 were, functionally, cuts to other county services in 2023.

The 2022 budget uses $1.5 million in ARPA funding to provide a $3 an hour increase in premium pay for corrections officers at the county jail, the House of Correction and the Vel R. Philips Juvenile Justice Facility. This funding is intended to increase officer retention in the jail, which has struggled to maintain staffing levels, which has  led to increased use of overtime in the facility.

The budget also makes significant changes to correctional officer staffing in the jail, with 23 vacant corrections officer positions being abolished and replaced with 21 corrections officer sergeant positions. Additionally, four vacant corrections office positions are going unfunded.

Security service contracts for sheriff’s deputies for facilities at the county grounds expire in 2022. The budget moves eight of those 11 deputy sheriff positions to other MCSO service areas like court security, using $700,000 in tax levy to pay for them. The county executive’s recommended budget narrative says this “significant increase in tax levy” is being used to address staffing in the court and the backlog in court cases.

The budget also includes $300,000 to expand the use of body cameras by the MCSO, and $321,000 to reduce the cost of phone calls for people in the jail.

Sup. Taylor successfully introduced an amendment directing the Office of the District Attorney to work with the sheriff’s office and the courts to develop a gun buyback program.

Update: The story has been updated to reflect that the 23 corrections officer positions being abolished are in fact being converted to 21 corrections officer sergeant positions.

Categories: MKE County, Politics

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