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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

Milwaukee County Comptroller Moves Ahead, Despite Dissension

Abele and GMC support it, board doesn't

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In the final days of the state Legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that creates a new fiscal position in Milwaukee County that's not only opposed by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors but also requires a constitutional amendment if it's going to streamline county government.

Introduced by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), the bill creates an independent Milwaukee County comptroller, who they say will be a sort of watchdog who will oversee the county's finances. The comptroller will be elected, but any candidate seeking this office must be a certified public accountant (CPA) or hold an advanced degree in accounting or finance. The position will appear on the spring 2012 ballots; nomination papers to be placed on the ballot will begin to be circulated in December.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele advocated for the position. Abele told the Shepherd he wanted a comptroller who would be insulated from political pressure. In the past, Abele said, the county has worked with two sets of numbers—one compiled by the appointed controller in the Department of Administrative Services in the executive's branch, the other from the financial staff that reports to the Milwaukee County supervisors.

“We need a shared set of budget assumptions,” Abele said.

But Milwaukee County Supervisor Eyon Biddle said that the board and the county executive don't work with two sets of numbers.

“There are two ideas about the numbers,” Biddle said.

Abele and the bill's supporters argued that an independent comptroller would have discovered that the pension plan designed during the Tom Ament administration would have huge costs for the county.

But Biddle said that an elected comptroller wouldn't have identified the details of the pension deal, which was crafted by Mercer.

“If this is such a good notion, then they should have passed this bill 10 years ago,” Biddle said. “They always drum up images of the pension scandal to make Milwaukee County look like we don't know what we're doing.”

Mercer later settled with Milwaukee County for $45 million, which Board Chair Lee Holloway says is an admission that Mercer provided the county with faulty advice on the backdrop pension payments.

The bill was pushed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), which has launched an initiative to reform county government. The GMC has been closely allied with Gov. Scott Walker throughout his career—its head was a chair of his gubernatorial campaign—but hadn't pushed for an elected comptroller until now. The GMC has also advocated for a more streamlined county government with a smaller board of supervisors; adding another elected position seems to run counter to its aim.

Abele is a member of the GMC and a number of GMC members were instrumental in Abele's campaign.

Also lobbying for the bill in Madison were the very conservative Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), Miller Coors and GMC's lobbying arm, Smart Government, Inc.

“This is a special interest bill,” Biddle said. “They [the GMC] don't understand county governance but they're making reforms to county governance.”

A companion bill is said to be in the works to abolish the elected Milwaukee County treasurer, a constitutional officer. To abolish it, the state Constitution must be amended, which requires approval by both houses of the state Legislature in two consecutive sessions, as well as a successful statewide referendum.

Milwaukee County is on record as supporting the abolishment of the treasurer and the register of deeds and consolidating their functions into the county clerk's office, which it says will make the county more efficient and save money.

On Monday, Abele vetoed a county budget amendment from Biddle and Supervisor Theo Lipscomb that would have provided job training to Milwaukee's hard-to-place workers.

“It's peculiar that he did it,” Biddle said. “These issues affect real people but he's not keyed in. He's more worried about a comptroller than creating more jobs.”

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