Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley Outlines Vision to Achieve Racial Equity
MILWAUKEE, WI – Today, August 10, 2020, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley will outline his vision for Milwaukee County to achieve racial equity in order to become the healthiest county in Wisconsin. Here are County Executive Crowley’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Good afternoon, Milwaukee County. It is an honor to join you today to discuss the future of our county and our vision to achieve racial equity in order to become the healthiest county in Wisconsin.
At the same time, I stand in front of you on a screen because of the gravity of the consequences we’re facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our world is different than it was just five months ago. Vigorous hand washing, physical distancing, and mask-wearing have become a part of our routine. The pandemic challenges us all each day in unique and all too often heartbreaking ways, and while it takes a toll on our people, it also exposes deep inequities in our systems that need attention.
Today I make a commitment to you, the people of Milwaukee County, to dedicate the work of my administration to addressing these inequities. The pandemic has only exacerbated the disparities many of us know all too well and have existed for many, many of years. But there is hope. We are one county, stronger together. And together, we have the power to make change.
While it is true that COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way, the magnitude and nature of the impact has been anything but universal. From March to May we’ve seen record numbers of job losses for Black workers nationwide, along with the economic devastation that follows. While unemployment skyrocketed across the spectrum, unemployment for Black workers is higher than their white counterparts. For those still going to work, Black workers are more likely to be in front-line jobs categorized as essential, forcing them to not only risk their own health but their families’ health as well. Just to pay their rent.
The dramatic disparities highlighted by the pandemic show deep inequities that have existed in government systems for generations. Statistically, Black workers and their families were insecure before the pandemic. The public health crisis and related job losses have been especially harmful for Black residents because they have historically suffered from higher unemployment rates, lower wages, lower incomes, and fewer savings than their white counterparts. The current economic damage is magnified due to those prior insecurities.
In addition, Black workers faced greater underlying pre-pandemic health insecurities that make them more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. Preexisting health conditions such as hypertension, asthma, and diabetes are all illnesses experienced at a higher rate for Blacks than Whites – and are also associated with greater risk of death from the coronavirus. Black workers are also more likely to be uninsured than white workers. The lack of health insurance results in less early diagnosis and treatment which are essential to minimizing the severity of chronic illnesses.
These disparities exist not just for those with a historic lineage to slavery, but in other communities of color as well. We cannot forget the impact on our Latinx, First Nations and Southeast Asian brothers and sisters who call Milwaukee County home.
For months, Milwaukee County residents have joined people across the globe in protesting the ongoing legacy of racism that continues to produce these kinds of unequal outcomes affecting nearly every aspect of life in the United States. COVID-19 may be new to us, but the disparate racial impact of the virus is deeply rooted in historic and ongoing social and economic injustices. The persistent racial disparities in health status, health care access, wealth, employment, housing, and poverty all contribute to greater vulnerability to the virus – both economically and physically.
There is no doubt that these are unprecedented and challenging times for us all to navigate. As we work to control the virus, keep people safe, and fully re-open our economy, we’re also working to end the racist policies and practices that have held people back and created the underlying conditions for the dramatic racial disparities we see today. The truth is we face two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. And we need to change the way we serve the people of Milwaukee County to combat them both.
I want to share a parable that was once shared with me…
A pair of friends are fishing on a riverbank when all of a sudden, they see someone struggling in the current. They rescued them. Soon, they saw another person. They rescued them, too. This continued all afternoon. The friends grew tired, weak and dejected from rescuing so many people from the river.
The community leaders agreed to install a protective guard and post warning signs, preventing the problem of people ending up in the river and needing to be helped downstream. They saved resources, energy, and lives.
It’s time for Milwaukee County to do the same. In order to achieve racial equity, we must shift the bulk of our focus upstream on strategies that prevent poor outcomes for everyone in our community.
This is why in 2019 Milwaukee County became the first jurisdiction in the nation to declare racism a public health crisis. Since then, more than 80 communities have followed suit.
This is why we have framed the County’s first strategic plan in 20 years to focus explicitly on achieving health and racial equity.
Today, I am proud to announce my administration’s three strategic focus areas to achieve our vision of becoming the healthiest county in Wisconsin.
First, we have to Create Intentional Inclusion. People in historic positions of power have typically been straight and white and male. People fall in the river because those who hold the power don’t always have the interests of all people in mind. Decision makers and influencers within Milwaukee County must represent the full diversity of all our residents.
Second, we have to Bridge the Gap in health disparities. We are at the top of a lot of the wrong lists—most segregated city, worst place for Black children to grow up. People fall in the river because programs and services don’t always address the needs of the whole person or whole families, rather they address issues one by one. Milwaukee County will prioritize resolving racial disparities by making it easier to access services that meet the holistic needs of our residents.
Third, we have Invest in Equity. We need to rethink how we spend our money. People fall in the river when we don’t invest far enough upstream. To make any real progress we must invest sufficient resources in our residents and communities so that everyone can thrive, not just survive.
Create Intentional Inclusion, Bridge the Gap, and Invest in equity. Not only do we have to, but we will.
Milwaukee County is well-positioned to achieve this bold vision. By addressing our policies and practice upstream, we can improve our services to meet the real needs of our residents.
Many don’t know what Milwaukee County does, but we offer services from A-Z, from the Airport to the Zoo. The County provides services to meet health and human needs like behavioral health, youth justice, disabilities, and housing. We meet transportation needs through the airport, transit system, and county roads. We serve public safety and justice needs through emergency preparedness and response, our medical examiner, and our justice system. Most residents enjoy our world-class countywide park system, our renown county zoo with the only elephants in the Midwest, and the museums and cultural institutions we support as well.
People in all corners of the county interact with our key services and often find life-changing outcomes. I think of Shenetta from Milwaukee who lost her job due to COVID in March. Shenetta missed her rent’s due date and had late fees added. When she was finally able to pay towards her rent, she found that every cent went to pay off her late fees and the rent balance was never being paid down. After trying unsuccessfully to work with her landlord, she found our eviction prevention program – a partnership with Community Advocates and the Milwaukee County Department of Health & Human Services. They were able to bring her late fees down from $3,086 to $26. Shenetta avoided eviction and alleviated the stress caused due to housing insecurity.
There is also Dawn who lives in South Milwaukee and lives with health complications that require her to use a wheelchair. Dawn has used our county paratransit services since 1980, allowing her to work and volunteer in her community. She uses the buses on our transit system as well, but without scheduling paratransit, she believes it would be much more difficult to live a full, independent life. Paratransit allows Dawn to attend Bucks and Brewers game, see her father in neighboring Oak Creek, and visit with her doctors to get the care she needs.
Finally, there is Israel who moved to Milwaukee six years ago from Texas. Israel has been blind since he was six years old, and upon riding MCTS buses he noticed the steps taken to improve accessibility for riders like the recorded announcements alerting riders to upcoming streets and bus stops. Last year, as an advocate for the differently abled community, Israel supported the launch of Aira (eye-ra), an app that allows users who are blind or low vision to receive free, one-on-one assistance riding the bus and navigating the more than 5,000 bus stops in Milwaukee County and at Mitchell International Airport. It’s an additional tool that increases accessibility for riders and helps ensure we’re doing all we can to make sure whoever wants to travel within Milwaukee County can do so.
When our key service groupings work well for our residents the results are fantastic. We’re able to provide independence for county residents and assist with relief in times of need.
Milwaukee county is ranked 71 out of 72 healthiest counties in the state Several studies done in the last decade has shown that these differences in health outcomes are a direct result of social determinants, like income level and educational attainment, which impact life expectancy and most health status measures. For generations, racist policies and practices of governments at all levels have unequally distributed health care access, opportunities for high wage jobs, and education access. Milwaukee County is no exception.
I know all too well the story of economic and housing insecurity. My family was evicted three times when I was growing up. As a child it was hard to have a stable mindset or sense of security when you don’t know when you’re going to lay your head at night. There is no easy answer to tackling a problem familiar to me and to thousands of residents feeling financial even more financial pressure to keep a roof over your head because of COVID-19. But, part of the answer must deal with confronting the effects of racist redlining policies that prevented people of color from living in certain parts of the county and discouraged real financial investment in areas where people of color lived. This is what we mean when we say we want to look “upstream.“
It’s up to us to walk up this stream and begin to find sustainable solutions to lower the Black unemployment rate, close the racial wage and education gap, expand access to affordable health care, and improve housing security. If we work upstream, we can improve these social health determinants for everyone by dismantling racist, ineffective policies of the past, and ultimately improve health outcomes with an equitable distribution services for everyone in our county. If we move upstream, the progress the county makes to improve health outcomes for all of its residents will last well beyond my time serving as County Executive.
The work we have already accomplished at Milwaukee County has given us a strong foundation to build upon.
This year, the Office on African-American Affairs was a key partner in creating a new ordinance establishing Chapter 108 “Achieving Racial Equity and Health” of the Milwaukee County Code of General Ordinances. The action built on Milwaukee County’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis one year ago and committed the county to eliminating institutional racism by addressing County polices, practices, and power structures that intentional or unintentionally, work in favor for some and create barriers for others
I want to thank Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson for her leadership on this issue, and the entire Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors for helping us advance this ordinance as the new way of doing business at Milwaukee County.
We’ve started working within County Government to intentionally create an inclusive workplace culture to ensure everyone has a voice in the process . Internally, the Office on African American Affairs provided over 11,000 hours of racial equity training to more than 3,000 Milwaukee County employees to normalize discussions on racism, implicit bias, and microaggressions. Trainings were offered to the entire County workforce, from elected officials and cabinet members to front line workers across all departments of the county.
Our Office of Emergency Management took this training one step further. With the help of the YWCA, they took real life Milwaukee County 911 calls to engage call center dispatchers in identifying whether bias was used when airing a call to a deputy, entering a description of an incident into the system or when asking questions to the 911 caller. This powerful self-reflection is an important step in advancing equity.
As a whole, Milwaukee County is also examining our hiring processes to include more diverse interview panels, removing unnecessary educational requirements on job descriptions that may create a barrier for some applicants, and seriously examining the real disparities in pay when it comes to race and gender. These efforts will create more intentional inclusion within our workforce.
We’re also working to bridge the gap and prioritize resolving health disparities. The Department of Health & Human Services has been a leader in this effort by working to ensure services are tailored to individuals and meet people’s needs across the lifespan with care that promotes their dignity regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status. DHHS is working toward a “No Wrong Door” model. Under this model, residents who access one program can access information about all of DHHS’ programs and services from any DHHS facility in the county. Soon, instead of having to contact several different siloed divisions within the department, there will be no wrong door to enter to receive the services you need.
We’ve created an integrated DHHS, designed to be a one-stop shop for tailored services – resulting in better outcomes and services for families, more efficient use of county resources, and elimination of organizational inefficiencies. By the end of the year, DHHS will have created the same one-stop shop for children’s services – including a centralized process and information hub for children with disabilities and their families in Milwaukee County. No matter the need or the disability, families will be able to access available and needed services through the same seamless approach.
We have also leveraged incredible collaboration across departments and partners. Our Parks Department led the creation of the We Care Crew to use parks as distribution centers for masks, meals and safe programming needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Crew includes credible messengers that reflect the community and leverages partners in DHHS, OAAA, the City of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, the Kellogg PEAK Initiative, and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office.
Lastly, we strive to invest in equity by providing enough resources to meet all our residents’ needs and allow them to live in diverse and inclusive communities. We want to lead the way by advocating for housing and inclusionary zoning, so more neighborhoods are accessible for residents to live in. After generations of racist policies that discouraged investment in Black and brown communities, we want to lead by example and invest in parts of the county that historically haven’t seen dollars flow to their community. That’s why we are developing our 2021 budget with a racial equity lens so that we can make intentional decisions about where we invest.
However, Milwaukee County is up against a growing structural deficit – and it has been for years. This perfect fiscal storm will not blow over without a significant change in the wind.
Irresponsible decisions made by County leaders decades ago placed the county in a difficult financial position. But the issue is not just in the past, it has been dramatically compounded by the growing weight of state mandated services, combined with state-imposed restrictions on funding.
Right now, over 70 percent of our local tax dollars support state mandated services, and our options for increasing revenue are extremely limited and undesirable. These state mandates are growing twice as fast as our ability to pay for them. Without change, by 2027 state mandates will consume all of our local tax dollars, leaving no funding for local priorities. Local tax dollars should fund local priorities, not just state services.
That was the fiscal crisis before COVID-19. We now face the massive challenge of responding to a global pandemic, unemployment rates that exceed the Great Recession, and the greatest racial disparities in the nation. The storm is growing.
Despite Milwaukee County’s consistent economic growth over the past decade, our funding imbalance has forced us to make significant cuts. Since 2012, Milwaukee County has cut $278 million. This averages roughly $30 million per year, more than the entire tax levy funding for our Parks Department, District Attorney’s office, and Emergency Management services combined. Each year, departments rise to the challenge, closing these annual gaps by creating efficiencies, streamlining services, and making the county leaner. But these cuts—year, after year, after year—are unsustainable. They have severely limited our ability to invest in our neighborhoods, in our services, and in the people of Milwaukee County.
The projected 2021 budget continues this trajectory. Without any new spending, we are estimating a budget gap of $42.5 million. But we are facing the unknown—as the severity of the economic and public health challenges caused by COVID-19 increase, the gap could reach $60 million. This trajectory will continue. Without any new spending, our yearly gap will exceed $80 million in 2023, and $200 million by 2030.
We are prepared to weather the storm again this year, utilizing our vision of becoming the healthiest County as our guide. But we are clear-eyed that the only way to achieve our vision, to successfully navigate this crisis, and to continue providing services county residents rely on, is by securing a local, long-term funding solution.
Milwaukee County must secure new sources of local revenue to reduce property taxes and begin investing in important community priorities – that is the transformative solution we need.
In Wisconsin, local governments must fund local AND state services, but one of the very few tools at our disposal to raise revenue is property taxes, a tool that has increased to an unsustainable level. As a result, combined with the growing cost of state mandates, Wisconsin and Milwaukee County has one of the highest property tax burdens in the country. Even with a 1 percent increase in sales tax, Milwaukee County would maintain one of the lowest sales taxes in the nation for a community our size.
We can re-balance this uneven funding structure. We can share the cost of services with commuters and visitors to Milwaukee, provide the largest property tax relief in recent memory, and invest in our community, through a 1 cent increase in our sales tax.
We can reverse the trend of planning for cuts, and instead plan for investments. We can utilize our local dollars for local priorities such as mental health, transit, senior services, and maintain valuable assets such as the zoo, and parks. We can invest in equity.
Milwaukee County is the economic engine of the state. Without the right tools to fix the problem, Milwaukee County will not be able to make the necessary investments to continue our economic growth and stay competitive with other major metropolitan areas.
That’s why our business community supports an increase in sales tax. They understand it puts our community on a sound fiscal future, that will make the greater Milwaukee area an even better place to invest, create jobs, and attract and retain talent.
Without solving our fiscal issues, Milwaukee County will not be able to navigate the storm we are in. We will not be able to address our racial inequities, improve the health of our community, or become the community we aspire to be. We have and will continue to call on our state legislators to give us the ability to solve local issues with local solutions.
Rather than cuts, we want to invest. We need to be able to invest in programs like Project Rise, which focuses on restorative justice and reunification of youth with their families and communities. Our approach on youth incarceration has shifted from a model based on locking up young Milwaukee County residents and towards a community-based best practice approach to account for the many facets of a child’s life that make it hard for them to control their emotions or impulses.
We’ve partnered with organizations like the Wauwatosa School District to help provide educational opportunities for kids in detention since we know that access to a good education helps divert children from finding their way back into the system. Also, with more than 80 percent of kids in our system having experienced trauma in their lives, we work with community partners like Wraparound Milwaukee to provide care centered around the specific needs of each child and family.
We’re also connecting kids with employment and mentoring programs to help teach the skills they need to make better choices and find success in both the classroom and the community. I know the importance of this connection. My life was changed by a community organization called Urban Underground at a time when there was a lot of uncertainty in my environment. I joined as a junior in high school and found my passion for organizing and serving my community. It opened my eyes to much more than my household or my neighborhood and taught me how to build relationships that I still have to this day.
That early intervention – the inclusion of mentors in my life who taught me to organize in my community. It sparked my love of public service and helped save me from entering the system. Project Rise aims to do the same thing; by fulfilling the needs and nurturing our children upstream.
Because of our upstream investments, I’m happy to report that last month, Milwaukee County reached unprecedented milestones of the fewest number of young people incarcerated at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center, operated by our Division of Youth & Family Services.
When comparing to the numbers from January of 2016, the County has achieved an approximately 57% reduction in the daily census of youth in the Detention Center. There are currently 25 county-committed youth at the state-run Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools Correctional institutions located in Irma, Wisconsin. This number represents the lowest number of Milwaukee County youth committed to youth corrections in its history and is a 76% reduction in the average daily population since January of 2016.
We’re working to find every opportunity to advance our racial equity goals. Even at the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, the nearly complete construction on the Airport’s new retail stores includes 30 percent participation from local Disadvantaged Business Enterprises – exceeding our goal of 25 percent. Also, tomorrow, I’ll have the honor of attending the ribbon cutting of the Bronzeville Crossing retail stores located at the Airport. The Airport will source locally crafted goods from the Bronzeville neighborhood in order to promote the Bronzeville neighborhoods rich history and talented entrepreneurs.
Whether it’s putting resources into our communities to keep kids out the system or supporting businesses in our historically Black neighborhoods, investments in equity matter each step of the way. County residents who are independent and free from economic and health insecurities contribute to a thriving community and robust economy. It’s important to remember that a rising tide lifts all boats. Achieving racial equity makes our entire county strong.
I understand this can be hard to imagine when we’re still working to contain COVID-19. For five months we’ve struggled to get a handle on the virus. We know we need to continue to educate the public about easy risk reduction measures that people can take each day. I want to thank Mayor Tom Barrett for putting Public Health first and Governor Tony Evers for his recent Emergency Order mandating masks in public spaces. And I look forward to continuing to work with all of our mayors, village presidents and councils in Milwaukee County to uplift our public health officers to do their jobs and keep our community safe.
While we work to contain the spread, Milwaukee County is doing all it can to meet the demand of its residents – especially those in historically underserved areas. I’m proud of the collaboration between the Milwaukee County Board and the County Executive’s office to provide relief and meet the needs of our residents through our recent allocation of federal CARES Act funds. This important influx of funding has truly allowed us to invest upstream and meet the needs of our residents.
We know that housing security is paramount for many county residents who have lost their job or are working significantly reduced hours due to the pandemic. That’s why we’ve invested $10 million in eviction prevention programs primarily for payment of rental arrearages, so that people like Shenetta, who I mentioned earlier, can rest easy knowing they won’t be kicked out of their home. I look forward to working with Community Advocates, Hope House, and the Legal Aid Society who will contract with the county to assist with the management of applications, prevention cases, and legal services for those facing evictions.
We’ve also put a total of $3 million for mortgage assistance for households unable to maintain their current mortgages due to economic hardships brought on by COVID. I look forward to partnering with Housing Resources Inc. to administer the program.
We also recognize the hardships our small businesses are facing, and to provide some relief we’ve invested $7 million in grants to aid small businesses in Milwaukee County to reimburse costs of business interruptions caused by closures and impacts of COVID-19. Grants of up to $20,000 will be available to eligible small businesses.
In addition, we’re investing $3.5 million more into the Community Resource Navigator Employment Program, a partnership with the already existing Employ Milwaukee and Big Step program. Employ Milwaukee recruits unemployed individuals and trains them to be resource navigators in combating COVID through the distribution of public health information and resources and aid in contact tracing. The program builds on an existing program initiated by the City of Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee’s allocation of $1.9M helped to set up 120 employment opportunities at approximately 72 placement sites. The allocation from Milwaukee County will help to add 275 to 350 additional employment opportunities and increase the number of placements to approximately 200. The Department of Health and Human Services is working to help secure placement sites, including expanding the program to Community Health Centers.
Last, but certainly not least, we’re investing $1.6 million for public health services, including mental and behavioral health services for uninsured populations that are impacted by COVID-19. This program will provide psychiatry services, including telehealth services, to approximately 100 individuals. The program will contract with psychiatrists who can provide prescriptions and will also include resources to assist with housing and employment services. Also, therapy sessions will be offered virtually or in community-based settings that are facilitated by culturally relatable leaders who are experienced and trusted community members. The therapy sessions will address increased grief, loss, sadness, and depression that has been experienced in Milwaukee County communities of color due to the disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and death.
This program will target vulnerable populations — including individuals who have been released from the House of Corrections. Individuals on GPS monitoring are not eligible for Medicaid and have high needs due to limited eligibility for resources and disconnection from social networks. The program will also target people who have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic due to mandatory closures and/or financial loss from reduced business.
I’m proud of all the work the county has done in light of the coronavirus epidemic to keep both our employees and residents safe. As the pandemic lingers and Wisconsin continues to see high rates of infection, the crucial services we’re rolling out this month for small businesses and housing are coming at the right time. No one wanted to believe that we’d still be grappling with this in August, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves today and the pandemic continues to take an economic toll on Milwaukee County families and businesses.
We’ve taken steps to provide immediate assistance for our urgent needs, but we know the demand for county services will continue to grow while the county is projected to lose over $100 million in lost revenue for 2020 alone. That’s why I’ve continued to push our state and federal partners to provide additional direct and flexible emergency funding to Milwaukee County so we can effectively respond to the challenges caused by the pandemic and work towards delivering needed services at this time in an equitable fashion.
I know employees feel this budget crunch in every day. Every year we ask you to do more with less, and we can’t always provide the raises you deserve. But we know your commitment to public service is steadfast. We know the work you do every day keeps people across our community safe, healthy, and strong. COVID-19 has sparked a great deal of uncertainty, but please know you are valued. We can’t achieve our vision without you.
For all you listening today, you all have the power to make change, and before we conclude I leave you with five specific calls to action that you can do today…
First, vote. There’s an election tomorrow, Tuesday Aug. 11. There’s no better way to use your power to make change than to elect our leaders. Visit myvote.wi.gov to learn more about who is on the ballot and how to vote safely.
Second, contact your state and federal legislators to tell them how much you value Milwaukee County services. Tell them we need more direct and flexible funding. We can’t invest in equity or health without more resources. You can find them by also going to myvote.wi.gov.
Third, engage in our budget process. Once again this year you can take Balancing Act, the County’s online budget simulation. Take 15 minutes and try your hand at balancing the 2021 County budget, and share your priorities with us. I would also like to invite you to our virtual budget town halls on August 25th and September 2nd. Visit county.milwaukee.gov for details.
Fourth, support our local small businesses in this difficult time. Small businesses are taking it on it the chin due to the pandemic and every customer helps them stay afloat. I encourage everyone who can to support the Milwaukee County economy by getting take-out from local restaurants or employing the creative services.
I also challenge residents to be intentional with their dollars and shop at Black-owned and person-of-color-owned Milwaukee County businesses. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 41 percent of Black-owned businesses across the country shut down between February and April. Much like the economic and health insecurities have been magnified by the pandemic, so have the challenges for Black-owned businesses. Lack of financial savings, less access to capital, and funding gaps that existed prior to the pandemic have intensified the demographic disparities.
Two Milwaukeeans created an app called MKE Black that is essentially a registrar for black owned dining, salons, and shopping in the county. You can help your county and help keep Black entrepreneurs in business by lending your support.
Lastly, take a look at the people around you, especially at your leadership tables. How many people of color do you seen? Whose voice is the loudest? How many different opinions do you seek out? Think hard about whether the people who make the decisions in your sphere of influence represent the full diversity of Milwaukee County. Think, and most importantly, make an intentional plan about what you are going to do to make the needed changes to achieve equity.
It is in this spirit of intentionality that we’ve decided to embark on a path towards racial equity at Milwaukee County. Our goals are ambitious, but by working together and making sure we all do our part to change the County we will achieve racial equity. We’ll turn Milwaukee County into the healthiest county in the state and build back better from the public health crisis we’re in today.
That is our vision for Milwaukee County. With your help, we can make the vision a reality.
Thank you and God Bless.