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Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

The Milwaukee County Budget: How Will It Affect You?

Abele's cuts to health care and the sheriff go to county board

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Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele took office with a $55 million deficit and had promised on the campaign trail not to raise property taxes, adopt a wheel tax or support a sales tax for transit, parks and other county services.

And when he released his proposed 2012 budget last week, it appeared that he closed the deficit and didn't raise property taxes.

So how did he do it?

And how will Abele's proposals affect Milwaukee County residents?

If you are not a Milwaukee County employee or an inmate in one of the county's correctional facilities, you probably won't see much of a change. According to Abele's proposed budget, your property taxes won't increase, senior centers will remain open and the courts will function as they have.

On the other hand, some fees will increase. Abele has proposed increasing summer admission to and parking at the Milwaukee County Zoo by $1 each, as well as other increases for renting a stroller or a motorized cart. Both the death certificate fee and a cremation permit will increase by $25. Unlimited monthly access to county real estate documents will jump $100, to $600. Paratransit riders will see their fares increase $1.25. Suburban communities will have to find a way to make up for the $3 million that the county will no longer provide for paramedic service.

In addition, funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) remains an open question, to be determined later this month.

Abele's budget will now go to the county board's Finance and Audit Committee, which will work its way through the numbers. The full board will then vote on the budget before sending it back to Abele for his approval or potential vetoes.

Health Care Changes

The portion of the budget taking the biggest hit is employee and retiree health benefits. The estimated $20 million in savings is more than a third of the county's projected $55 million budget hole—one that can be modified creatively, thanks to Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker's controversial collective bargaining bill.

Act 10 requires public employees to pay at least 12.6% of their health care premiums and at least 5.8% of their pension contributions. But it also made health care a subject on which the county and its unions could not negotiate. Therefore, Abele and his aides could make changes to the county's health care plan without involving the unions. On Monday, Abele told the Shepherd that the county had always had the power to make these changes, but it had not acted on it.

While the county had had two health care plan options, Abele's health care proposal would winnow that down to one option and increase out-of-pocket expenses such as premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Since the changes apply to all employees, regardless of their pay, lower-paid employees and those with families will have to pay more as a proportion of their earnings for their health care costs than high-earning employees.

Abele said the health care changes were necessary to cut the county's costs.

"We're in a canoe and we're headed toward a waterfall," Abele said. "Nobody likes backward progress. But we're headed toward a waterfall, we're headed toward a cliff."

But Rob Henken, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum, said that asking employees to contribute more toward their health care is a double-edged sword.

"From the perspective of the Public Policy Forum, without question putting a lid on health care expenditures has been a key imperative in terms of bringing structural balance to the county budget," Henken said. "Obviously, what that needs to be weighed against is just what impact are you having on your employees and what impact might that have in the long run, in terms of retention and recruitment. It's clearly a balancing act and I think further analysis is needed to determine its impact."

The Sheriff's Budget

Not surprisingly, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke slammed Abele's $14 million cut to his office, the first significant cut Clarke has had to absorb, since Gov. Scott Walker, then acting as county executive, typically shielded the sheriff's office from cuts that had crippled other county departments.

Not only is Abele eliminating 240 full-time positions in the department, but he's also taking on some of Clarke's most beloved (and high-profile) programs.

If the board passes Abele's proposal, Clarke would lose funds for drug enforcement, the park patrol, half of the canine unit used in the County Correctional Facility South, mounted patrol, dignitary protection, neighborhood watch and public demonstration duties.

Abele said on Monday that the number of hours worked will remain the same, despite the funding cuts. And, what's more, the Office of the Sheriff will still receive more of the county's tax levy than other departments. Abele is also speeding up reforms that the sheriff has already tested, such as universal screening for low-risk offenders, using corrections officers instead of sheriff's deputies and privatizing medical and mental health services.

Not surprisingly, Clarke shot back, saying in a press release that Abele's goal was "to be soft on crime, coddle criminal inmates and excuse criminal behavior." He added that he does "not take orders or directives from a county executive."

Abele told the Shepherd that, technically, he has the authority to set the overall budget for the sheriff's office. How Clarke wants to use those funds is up to him. He said Clarke has yet to provide him with data about the usefulness of his programs, including the controversial boot camp, which is a favorite among conservatives but has no real record of success.

Transit Funding

Not a mandated service with a dedicated source of funding, but one that's essential to the economic health of the county, transit struggled to remain viable during the Walker era. In this budget cycle, MCTS had proposed cutting up to 12 routes to fill its chronic deficit, made worse by a 10% cut in state funding created in Gov. Walker's biennial budget.

Abele has not cut the routes, but MCTS's funding isn't set in stone, either. Rather, the county has applied for unused federal funds that originally had been slated for the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line, which Republicans in the state Legislature killed off this year.

Milwaukee is asking for $15 million, which would cover this year's transit defiicit and give the county another year or two to come up with a more stable source of funding for MCTS.

But if state and federal agencies don't approve the funds for Milwaukee County, Abele's budget doesn't have any other option besides cutting routes. It will be up to the county supervisors to find some way to save transit—either by raising fares or raising property taxes or shifting funds from other county departments.

Not in the mix, either, is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line that Walker had proposed to serve as express buses. Walker had planned to use the $36 million in federal funds set aside for transit upgrades for this line; Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is using the city's portion for a proposed streetcar line.

Abele said BRT is on hold, since he's attempting to get approval to use those funds for MCTS upgrades.

The Public Policy Forum's Henken said there was irony in using KRM and BRT funds—money set aside to enhance transit options with new services—to plug a hole in Milwaukee's daily bus service.

"There were two significant opportunities to enhance the quality of our transit system that have fallen by the wayside," Henken said. "The good news is that it might provide a short-term fix to stave off severe cuts in the basic bus service. But we're still not getting the transit enhancements that other communities have moved forward with."


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