New Study Analyzes Ways City, County Could Share Services, Save Money
"Promising possibilities" says Wisconsin Policy Forum report.
A new report identifies opportunities for Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee to partner on back-office functions to save money and better deliver services.
The city and county represent overlapping, but not identical areas and provide different services, such as a bus system for the county or a fire department for the city, but still must perform basic functions like maintaining a fleet of vehicles, running a human resources department and mowing the grass on properties each own.
The report, authored by the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) at the request of the two entities, suggests substantial opportunities for service sharing within payroll, procurement, facilities management and fleet operations. It recommends further study of even an outright merger of some of those functions.
“The two governments are now seeking to recruit and retain talent in a historically tight labor market — suggesting that collaborating on certain key functions may even be more of a human resources than a fiscal necessity,” says the report.
The report cites the repair of small engine vehicles as one such area for partnership and where the labor market is currently leaving each government understaffed. Mowing is another area the report identifies as possible for outright merger or service sharing, but concerns with space at existing facilities or administrative capacity need further examination.
“Considerable potential” was identified for joint contracting on building security and custodial services as well as training for skilled trades and laborer positions. WPF suggests the two governments could also work together on facilities planning, even if they maintain their own facilities.
A merged procurement operation would require careful consideration of the ordinance requirements imposed by each entity. Cost savings are expected on better pricing, not on positional savings. There is a potential for operational improvements if a joint business certification program could be established.
The report differs substantially from a report by the Greater Milwaukee Committee and consulting firm Ernst & Young in that it is focused on finding ways the city and county can work together on administrative services, instead of simply seeking operational efficiencies or financial savings for the city. One partnership suggestion in the GMC report, merging the city and county’s tree nurseries, doesn’t appear in the WPF report.
WPF concluded that there were several areas where service sharing likely wouldn’t make sense, including auditing, general accounting, budget management and benefits administration. But throughout the report, ancillary functions were identified where collaboration would work.
“While we see little justification for exploring a full merger of health care benefits administration or health care plans, we do see considerable potential for the city and county to explore joint health care clinics, wellness programming, and potentially wellness staff,” says the report.
The study was supported by an advisory group of more than two dozen members of city and county government. It was authored by WPF president Rob Henken, senior research associate Ari Brown and researcher Don Cramer.
The city has a history of collaborating with other governments. The recycling center, formally the Materials Recovery Facility, is a partnership between the City of Milwaukee and Waukesha County. Several municipal fire departments in northern Milwaukee County are already merged into the North Shore Fire Department, and the Milwaukee Fire Department crosses municipal boundaries in a service sharing agreement with the North Shore department and other Milwaukee County communities. The Milwaukee County Federated Library System involves municipal library systems sharing materials across municipal lines.
The study was commissioned out of a political as well as fiscal reality. During the sales tax debate, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) recently said he won’t consider granting the entities new revenue sources unless they consider privatizing or sharing services. Each government contributed to the approximately $50,000 effort.
The Common Council didn’t unanimously endorse the effort. In January, Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs and Alderman Mark Chambers, Jr. said that the study was about creating a metropolitan government and abstained for voting on it. Ald. Mark Borkowski, a former county supervisor, voted no. Henken, at the request of Coggs, evaluated the potential of including Milwaukee Public Schools in the study and concluded, in an email to city officials, that it was better added after an initial study was completed to avoid delay and cost increase.
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