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Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011

Budget Games at the County—Again

Milwaukee supervisors are concerned that Abele is simply 'Walker-Lite'

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Throughout Scott Walker's tenure as Milwaukee County executive, he held fast to one big campaign promise: He refused to raise property taxes in each year's proposed budget.

The problem, of course, is that Walker's budgets were never based in reality. Walker's budgets would either cut programs to the bone—which would force supervisors to add in funding and then be labeled "tax and spenders" while allowing Walker to look like a fiscally responsible leader—or his budget would include unrealistic items, like millions in concessions never negotiated with the county's unions, or land sales that wouldn't materialize.

While Walker is no longer county executive, six supervisors are concerned that his successor, Chris Abele, is taking a "Walker-lite" approach to his proposed 2012 budget, which he'll release Sept. 29. The six supervisors sent out a joint press release last week.

"The point that we were trying to make is that he'll recommend cuts in programs that he knows will never be considered appropriate by the county board, much like Scott Walker did," said Supervisor John Weishan. "Walker would present something knowing full well that the county board would reject that proposal, so then the county board gets to be the bad guy."

On the campaign trail this spring, Abele promised that he would not raise property taxes, would not consider a wheel tax and would not ask the state to sign off on a sales tax dedicated to transit, parks and other county services. Instead, Abele promised, he would look for efficiencies in county government to make his budget work.

After he was elected, the inexperienced county executive found that the county's finances were far worse than they appeared earlier this year. Walker, as governor, and his Republican allies in the state Legislature have cut funding for Milwaukee County by $28.7 million, which includes an $8 million cut in state shared revenue and a $7 million cut to the already cash-strapped transit system. 

It gets worse.

When the county's Department of Administrative Services and the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum looked at the county's state aid cuts as well as the cost to continue operating, they found that the county's budget shortfall would be between $51 million and $55 million next year. 

Even Abele's own department heads have requested a tax levy increase of nearly $37 million—a 13.7% increase over last year's levy—according to county documents.

That's why the six supervisors are asking Abele to re-think his campaign promises while finalizing his proposed budget.

"Once he releases it, he really doesn't have a role until veto time," said Supervisor Theo Lipscomb. "So if I want to encourage him to be responsible, now is the time to do it."

Paramedics on the Chopping Block

So what is Abele going to do to balance his budget?

His spokesman, Jeff Bentoff, hasn't responded to the Shepherd's requests for comment. Publicly, Abele has said that he's looking at "efficiencies" to reduce the county's costs.

On Monday, for example, Abele told members of the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council (ICC), made up of local elected officials, that he would cut the county's $3 million contribution to municipalities for paramedic services but would still provide $4.7 million in funding for the county's administration of the program.

As county executive, Walker had attempted to cut paramedic funding, but push-back from local leaders, emergency responders and suburban residents and unanimous opposition from the Milwaukee County board prevented that cut from being enacted.

Greenfield Mayor Mike Neitzke said he was surprised that Abele announced the cut at Monday's ICC meeting, but that local officials have been working on contingency plans because they could see that the county's finances were so strained. Greenfield provides paramedic services for its own residents as well as Hales Corners and Greendale and backs up paramedics in nearby communities.

"We in Greenfield recognize how important our paramedic program is to our citizens and there won't be an interruption in service," Neitzke said. "Does it mean that a year from now the way that services are provided is exactly the same? Maybe not."

If Abele or the board does not provide funding for paramedics, then suburban communities will have to absorb the cuts—they're not allowed to raise taxes, thanks to Walker's new mandates—or radically reorganize their operations to save money. Suburbs are already doing their own billing and sending paramedics to Waukesha County Technical College for training, instead of going through the county, to save money.

Although suburbs are increasingly taking a do-it-yourself approach to the program, Abele is still planning on allocating $4.7 million for county government to administer it.

Consider a Balanced Approach

Walker's method of balancing his budgets through employee concessions isn't going to help Abele, since Walker himself wrote pension and health care contributions into the previous county budget that are now being implemented statewide.

The Public Policy Forum found that the county would save only $7.3 million in 2012 due to Walker's "tools" and forced contributions—not even close to offsetting the $28 million the state is cutting. The county could raise property taxes 3.6%, at which point the levy would be frozen.

Walker's cuts, along with Abele's promise to not raise taxes, have supervisors bracing for a disastrous budget. The county supervisors realize that they, not the county executive, are going to have to fix the budget so that transit, parks, health services and safety operations are maintained.

They say that all options should be considered, not just cuts. A more balanced approach to next year's budget could include a moderate increase in property taxes, a wheel tax, increased fees and other measures.

None of them wants to raise taxes, but they realize that the conversation has to include them.

"How are you going to not make massive cuts here and there, from transit to art to mental health, but still not raise taxes?" said Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. "It's beyond me. And it reminds me a lot of the games that Walker would play."

Supervisor Eyon Biddle said he didn't want to have to raise taxes to make Abele's budget work.

"But I also don't want to be the one to say, 'The reason why you don't have access to your job, or why your loved one doesn't have access to quality health care and mental health services, is because I wanted to play politics and be re-elected,'" Biddle said.

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