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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

Issue of the Week: The City Budget's Open Question

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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has faced some challenging city budgets. The 2008 financial collapse had a huge negative impact on the city's finances, which forced the city to make a multimillion-dollar contribution to the pension fund as well as cut the budget by $32 million.

The city isn't facing that kind of mess this year. It's facing an entirely different mess—one of Gov. Scott Walker's making.

As we all know, Walker's collective bargaining changes now require public employees to make contributions to their pensions and health care. But not all employees are created equal in Walker's world. Those who are politically favored—the police and firefighters' unions, which supported Walker during his campaign—are exempt from making this sacrifice.

But what about the rest of the city's workforce?

That's still an open question.

Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley sent Barrett a letter in February, which Barrett forwarded to Walker, arguing that the governor's collective bargaining changes were unconstitutional and neither Walker nor the state Legislature had that kind of power over Milwaukee, thanks to the Home Rule provision in the state Constitution.

But Barrett heard nothing in response. On Tuesday he said that 18 communications occurred between his staff and the governor's staff, yet nothing has been resolved.

"So here's where we are," Barrett said in his budget address. "I've got a city attorney's opinion and a state law which are in direct conflict."

So until this matter is resolved in the courts, Barrett is requiring city employees—except for fire and police employees—to make the additional health care and pension contributions.

But just in case Walker's bill is unconstitutional, as Langley argues, and employees aren't required to make these additional payments, Barrett is setting aside $8.2 million in a special purpose account for benefits. The city will tap into that fund if it's determined that it will have to cover the contributions.

"I cannot in good conscience propose a budget that has conflicts with state law," Barrett said. "Unless a court has determined that in fact the relevant provisions are unconstitutional, there may be very negative consequences for the city to adopt a budget that conflicts with the statutes."

Hero of the Week: George Wagner, Doors Open Milwaukee Creator

George Wagner is proof that one individual—a volunteer, no less—can shape a city. Wagner, a longtime volunteer for Historic Milwaukee Inc. and a retired librarian for the Milwaukee Public Library, had enjoyed "doors open" events in Toronto and Denver, events that allowed visitors to tour historic buildings in those cities. Wagner knew that this sort of event would flourish in Milwaukee, thanks to our impressive collection of historic buildings. So Wagner, in conjunction with Historic Milwaukee Inc. and hundreds of volunteers, launched Doors Open Milwaukee, which debuted this past weekend with tours of City Hall, the Bradley Center, the Jones Island water treatment center and the 41st-floor observation deck of the U.S. Bank Building, among other of the city's architectural gems. We applaud Wagner's love of Milwaukee and the gift he's given to this city.

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