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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Meet Your Next Milwaukee County Executive

Abele and Stone vie for a one-year term on April 5

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Who would want to be Milwaukee County executive?

The county's finances are a mess, with an estimated $120 million structural deficit within the next four years. After years of questionable management, the mental health system needs to be utterly revamped. The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is struggling to survive. The county hasn't sold any of its Park East properties and its facilities in the parks and elsewhere are crumbling. Members of its largest union, AFSCME District Council 48, had to take 26 unpaid days off in 2010 and will likely be forced to take another 26 unpaid furlough days—roughly one day per two-week pay period, or a 10% pay cut—this year, too, in order to balance the budget.

And that was before Gov. Scott Walker, the former county executive, announced that he'd slash state aid to the county by $8.4 million next year, as well as cut $7 million from MCTS's budget and prevent the county from raising property taxes to fill the gap.

So why would anyone want to be Milwaukee County executive for one year to finish Walker's final term in office?

According to the two primary election winners, Argosy Foundation philanthropist Chris Abele and state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), it's because they love Milwaukee County and think they are the best man for the job.

That may be a tough sell in this supercharged political climate. Abele has been hit with a series of negative stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which have detailed the millionaire's lack of a college degree; his ability to avoid paying state income tax for at least the past four years; his $2,100 in parking tickets and drunken driving citation; and allegations that he threw a lit firecracker at high-powered attorney Michael Hupy back in 2006.

[Full disclosure: The Shepherd Express and the nonprofit corporation that the Shepherd had created to operate the former Milwaukee International Film Festival (MIFF) 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 business. For a complete copy of the complaint filed in the Milwaukee County courts, go to www.milwaukeefilmfest.info.]

But Abele's beating in the JS doesn't necessarily mean that Stone will have an easy path to the county executive's office. Stone has to appeal to the 62% of Milwaukee County voters who opposed Walker in his race for governor last November. And that may be difficult, since Stone voted for Walker's controversial and unpopular budget repair bill, which strips most bargaining rights for public employee unions, and said he'd do it again if it comes up for a re-vote. That's making it easy for Stone's opponents to claim that "Jeff Stone is a Walker clone."

Abele and Stone, both of whom spoke with the Shepherd last week, will appear on the April 5 ballot for Milwaukee County executive. Here's an overview of their positions.

Chris Abele: Small Savings Will Add Up

"There's no light switch," Abele said about fixing the county's fiscal problems. But he said that the county can use its scarce resources wisely by changing its culture so that the administration provides incentives that reward success and forces failing employees or departments to be more accountable.

To reduce costs, Abele suggested consolidating or coordinating some county operations and services with those of other units of government to provide economies of scale.

"There are no savings too small not for us to seek," Abele said.

He said big savings could be created if local public employees pooled together to purchase health care and also implement targeted wellness programs.

"Here we have the opportunity to expand the buying pool a lot larger and have a lot more market leverage and make sure that when we competitively bid for providers that process is headed by someone who's a very good negotiator," Abele said.

Abele said he wasn't sure how much money these measures would save in the one-year term.

"It's hard to say because a lot of these things would take time," Abele said. "I'm very clear on the fact that this is going to be incredibly, incredibly difficult."

He said that he didn't have specifics on how he would create a balanced budget for 2012.

"What I can tell you is here are a bunch of tools I know I'm going to use and I've got already a group of policy folks I've talked to quite a bit about different ideas and modeling different savings scenarios," Abele said. "I can tell you it'll be tough decisions."

Abele said that he does not support Walker's attack on collective bargaining. He pointed out that he had successfully negotiated with the unions of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), where Abele had served as board chair, to cut costs. He said that when he served on the MSO board the organization cut about half of the 70 staff positions, but musicians, who are represented by unions, agreed to make concessions and had not been laid off. He said the experience proved to him that unions can and should be part of the budget process.

Abele said that he does not support raising the sales tax for parks or transit and that he would try to find savings within MCTS, lobby the state government for more funds or use some of the $36 million in federal transit aid for the bus system.

He said he does not support creating a wheel tax to raise county revenue and that he would not sign a budget that includes a property tax increase.



Jeff Stone: My Style Is Different Than Walker's

Jeff Stone is unapologetic about his support for the changes to collective bargaining rights recently made at the state level, since he said they would help Milwaukee County cut costs for employee and retiree health care and pensions.

"We need to come to grips with pensions and benefits for county workers," Stone said. "Obviously I have supported changes in the way we do it. I've been campaigning on that all the way along."

He said he supports creating an aggressive health and wellness program to reduce costs, but said that pooling county workers with other public employees—for example, a school district—to purchase health insurance would not significantly reduce administrative costs. He said that driving down costs for county employees' health care would force insurance companies to pass along their costs to private sector employers in the form of higher rates.

"It might reduce the cost to the county and possibly to the school district, but at the end of the day it makes it even more challenging for private sector employers to provide health insurance or discourage them from coming here if those costs rise," Stone said.

Stone scoffed at the idea that he's a "Walker clone," saying that he's been in business for more than 20 years, while Walker has been an elected official for most of his adult life.

"The reality is that Scott and I have some similar philosophies, but I think we have different ways of approaching problems," Stone said. "There are different ways to get to the same place."

He said that savings from increased employee benefits contributions will help him present a balanced budget for 2012, as well as acting on plans for revamping mental health services, which he said could save the county millions when they're fully implemented. He said that he would not raise property taxes but that it was unrealistic to say that they would never increase over the years. He added that he would try to change a state budget item that dedicates an auto-related sales tax for transportation so that some of it could be used for mass transit.

"There's an opportunity that we can possibly impact that," Stone said.

And although the Milwaukee County Board recently voted 14-5 against proposed voter ID legislation, which Stone has championed through the years, he said he was confident that the bill is constitutional and would not unfairly harm low-income voters, minorities or the elderly. Previous investigations by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office and the then-Republican U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin found no evidence of systematic voter fraud in Milwaukee County. But Stone is undeterred.

"We have a piece of legislation that's solid," Stone said. "If you've got somebody who doesn't have an ID, this may actually be a helpful piece of legislation in that it provides something that they need to participate in society, access government services and get employment. You need an ID for all of those things."

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