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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011

Will the Candidates Save Milwaukee County Transit?

County executive hopefuls debate the bus system

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Although the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has been praised for its cost-effective operations, it’s facing a life-or-death struggle for survival. Ridership and routes have been slashed at the same time that fares have increased and state funding has remained flat. Instead of using federal dollars for replacement buses, as intended, MCTS has dipped into this reserve for its operating costs. Stimulus funds, which have paid for new, fuel-efficient buses, will run dry. The situation is so bad that MCTS may have a $12 million to $15 million hole in its 2015 budget, according to one estimate.

County voters approved an advisory referendum in November 2008 to increase the sales tax 1% to support a host of county services—including transit—while decreasing the property tax levy. The referendum was promoted as a way to lessen property taxes and support MCTS and other county assets and services while raising revenue from non-county residents who purchase items in Milwaukee County.

Despite support from the public and the business community, the state failed to enact the sales tax to support MCTS and take it off of the property tax rolls. Former Gov. Jim Doyle had stripped a half-cent sales tax increase for transit from the Legislature’s version of the 2009 biennial budget. A year later, the Assembly passed the increase, with the requirement that county residents re-vote on the measure in another referendum. The state Senate failed to act on the bill.

The five candidates for Milwaukee County executive weighed in on transit issues during a forum sponsored by the Public Policy Forum last Friday. Here are their responses:

Chris Abele:
Abele opposes a sales tax increase to support MCTS because he feels it’s regressive and would not help to build the county’s economy. He said he would study redesigning and rescheduling routes so that they are being used to the fullest extent.

“I’ve talked to transit workers,” Abele said. “They’ve got a lot of ideas, not least of which, as I’ve talked about before, is optimizing the routes so they are always a direct line between the densest population of need and the densest opportunity of employers who need workers.”

He indicated he would push for more state funding for MCTS.

“I’d certainly look into making the argument with the state that this is the economic engine, this is what we need for care and growth,” Abele said. “And also re-evaluate our position on the federal funds that remain in the city for rail.”

(Full disclosure: The Shepherd Express and the nonprofit corporation that the Shepherd had created to operate the former Milwaukee International Film Festival are suing Abele, Milwaukee Film Inc. and two of its employees for misappropriation of confidential information, misappropriation of good will, unjust enrichment, computer crimes, theft and damages arising from conspiracy to injure businesses. For a complete copy of the complaint filed in the Milwaukee County courts, go to www.milwaukeefilmfest.info.)

Ieshuh Griffin:
The community activist said that MCTS’s financial woes are due to mismanagement, primarily because it has used federal funds intended for bus purchases for ongoing operating costs.

“The federal reserve that was given to the Milwaukee County Transit System had to be used because of mismanagement of government, plugging holes in places it shouldn’t have been plugged in,” Griffin said.

She said the county needed to look at capital investments and not rely on property tax increases for funding.

Lee Holloway:
As Milwaukee County Board chair, Holloway supported the 2008 advisory referendum, which passed with 52% of the vote. He accused candidates Jeff Stone and Jim Sullivan of not voting for dedicated funding in the previous legislative session.

“Out of 50 large bus systems in the country, we’re the only one that still doesn’t have dedicated funding,” Holloway said. “We need dedicated funding. It is the infrastructure of Milwaukee County.”

Holloway cited a UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development study that estimated that 40,000 jobs have been cut off from the system since 2001.

“We need dedicated funding,” Holloway said. “We just don’t need people talking about it now. We need it right now. Otherwise in another year or so the bus system will only be in a small area and will be dead as an infrastructure and as an economic force.”

Jim Sullivan:
The former Democratic state senator has circulated a petition calling for enacting the November 2008 advisory referendum. He voted against the Senate version of the 2009 budget, which included a 1% sales tax increase for county assets and services, but did not have an opportunity to vote on the stand-alone bill on dedicated funding for transit because the state Senate didn’t take it up.

Sullivan bristled at the portrayal of dedicated funding as a tax increase.

“I think it’s very important to point out that it is taking the bus system off the property tax and having a corollary property tax benefit for the people in Milwaukee County, particularly for our vulnerable seniors, people who are living on a fixed income,” Sullivan said.

Jeff Stone:
The Republican state representative said that he has advocated for a regional transit authority (RTA) for southeastern Wisconsin, but he voted against the half-cent sales tax increase to support local transit as well as the Assembly version of the budget, which included the funding.

Stone said he wanted to use a portion of an existing tax to dedicate solely to transit and to stop “raids” on the transportation fund, a portion of which goes to transit systems across the state.

“My friend Scott Walker and I both have proposed the idea of dedicating a portion of the sales tax on autos and auto-related sales to transportation for transit purposes,” Stone said. “I believe that a big part of the problem, the vast majority of the money that comes to transit flows from the state. It’s either state or federal dollars. We should have the state step up, dedicate a portion of the sales tax on auto-related sales and put that into transit so that we can get to a maintainable growth in that support.”
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