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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

Supervisors Examine Abele’s County Budget

Mistakes, policy decisions and more employee cuts

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Like his predecessor, Scott Walker, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele touted his no-tax-increase $1.4 billion county budget.

To balance, Abele is relying on asking employees to make even more contributions to their health care, cutting a potential 260 positions, closing the county’s only indoor pools, creating a much-smaller sheriff’s department and dealing with $3 million in accounting errors. Abele’s budget staff created $2.1 million in errors in the transit and sheriff’s accounts, while County Comptroller Scott Manske admitted that his office made a $900,000 error as well.

So instead of proposing a balanced budget, Supervisor Pat Jursik said she considered Abele’s budget to be “out of balance” on arrival.

In last week’s public hearings, the supervisors combed through Abele’s proposed 2014 budget and grilled Abele’s staffers and department heads instead of the county executive himself.

Some highlights of Abele’s proposed budget—and the board’s reaction to the items that were up for discussion last week:

 

Employees Will Take a Hit: Following in the footsteps of Scott Walker, Abele is balancing his county budget on the backs of workers. Abele’s budget cuts 89 full-time positions but an additional 182 positions are at risk. According to the board’s budget analysis, outsourcing, downsizing and closing the county’s mental health facilities will result in a loss of 115 full-time positions. The sheriff’s office will lose 69 full-time positions, but many of them will be transferred to other agencies, such as the House of Correction or the district attorney’s office.

Abele is also asking employees to contribute more to their health insurance coverage at the same time he’s eliminating step increases in pay. Walker’s last budget required employees and retirees to pay 12.6% of their health care costs; Abele is asking them to pay 28.9%.

Monthly premiums will rise between 15% (for a single employee enrolled in the wellness plan) to 80% (for an employee with family coverage who is not in the wellness plan). As a result, county employees will pay far more for their health benefits than state or city workers. For example, under Abele’s plan, a single employee would pay $165 monthly premiums; that same employee would pay $88 at the state and $75 if employed by the city. Employees with kids would take the biggest hit with $365 monthly premiums; that same employee would pay $219 at the state and $224 at the city.

Taken together, the average county employee would see between a 2.9% reduction in take-home pay to a 7.34% pay cut. Employees with families have the most to lose.

Abele is also asking the board to consider shifting employees to the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. But Supervisor Willie Johnson, the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee co-chair, told the Shepherd that health care reform needs at least a year to roll out before the board could even consider it.

Behavioral Health Downsizing: Supervisors had a lukewarm reaction to the 45-minute presentation offered by Health and Human Services Director Hector Colon. While the board supports downsizing and redesigning the county’s behavioral health services, supervisors—and members of the public who testified—were skeptical that the county could do so as quickly as Abele wishes. A top concern is the elimination of 12 acute care beds by the end of next year. Colon testified that 36 acute care beds are available daily at private health care providers in the community and patients can find appropriate care in those private hospitals. But Dr. Tony Thrasher, medical director of Behavioral Health Division’s crisis services, testified that he was “vehemently opposed” to this change, saying that it posed a danger to patients and the community. He said that patients with the most complex and critical issues wouldn’t be accepted by private hospitals and that without the safety net provided by the county, patients lacking private insurance will have the most difficulty finding care. He said that in that past three months, private hospitals rejected 41% of the county’s requests for patient transfers. Dr. Thrasher also warned that Columbia-St. Mary’s hospital is cutting up to 18 acute psychiatric care beds, making patient placement even more difficult. Supervisors asked Colon to provide written answers to the questions raised in Wednesday’s committee meeting, saying they needed more detailed information before making a decision.

Big Changes to Transit: The Abele administration is in the midst of negotiating a contract with Texas-based MV Transportation to take over the operation of the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS). But two bidders on the contract, Milwaukee Transport Services (MTS) and Veolia Transportation, are taking legal action to have that decision reconsidered. The nonprofit MTS has operated MCTS for more than 30 years; its contract ends Jan. 1, 2014, but it can be extended on a month-to-month basis for another year.

Although that contract is in limbo, Abele is pursuing some major changes to MCTS. He wants to cut Paratransit fares from $4 to $3 and MCTS is phasing in a new electronic fare collection system with smart cards, which the county executive says will result in an additional $800,000 in revenue.

But Abele’s Paratransit fare cut may not come to fruition. Budget Director Josh Fudge found that his department created a $1.5 million error in transit’s budget, and Abele—and the board—must find some way to fill it. Fudge provided the board with a memo outlining some alternatives that can be considered in amendments.

When Supervisor Theo Lipscomb asked Abele’s aides which “best practices” the county executive used to arrive at the $1 fare reduction, they could provide no data on whether the fare cut was feasible or how Abele arrived at this figure, just saying that the public asked for reduced bus fares.

Angela Walker, the outgoing head of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998, warned the supervisors against signing a contract with the for-profit MV Transportation, even if they aren’t happy with MTS’s management. She urged the board to consider taking over management of MCTS instead.

Closing Noyes and Pulaski Pools: Abele has proposed closing the county’s only indoor pools on Jan. 1, 2014, and demolishing them because, he alleges, they are underutilized, too expensive to operate and have $4.2 million in deferred maintenance. Abele wants to build a splash pad on the Pulaski site and a skateboard park on the Noyes site.

In 2009, the board had allocated $6 million for improving these pools; that money was used for emergency repairs to O’Donnell Park after the tragedy the following year. The board attempted to fund the pools again in 2010, but it could not override Walker’s veto in his final county budget.

Abele’s proposal fell apart on Friday, when board members questioned Parks Director John Dargle, his assistant, James Keegan, and Josh Fudge.

Supervisor Theo Lipscomb said he wasn’t happy with Abele ignoring the board’s intent to repair the facilities in previous budgets.

“That’s unacceptable to me,” Lipscomb said.

Dargle admitted that his department didn’t recommend closing the pools and that the skateboard park idea was Abele’s; no studies or public hearings have been held on this matter. Abele’s staffers had no data on whether the skateboard park would be more cost effective or how many residents would use it.

Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic testified that the $4.2 million in maintenance costs was exaggerated, and got Dargle to confirm that high-priority fixes comprised only $1.6 million and medium-priority repairs were $1.1 million. Demolishing and rebuilding these sites would cost $2.5 million.

Pulaski had the highest attendance of any deep-water pool in 2012 and, as of September, in 2013 as well.

Jursik complained that while the Abele administration proposed closing these pools, it made no effort to help their users find alternate, low-cost, year-round pools—at the YMCA, for example.

“You’re dropping the ball,” Jursik said.

Selling O’Donnell Park: Abele’s budget assumes that the county will sell O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual by the third quarter of 2014. However, the board hasn’t even declared that property to be surplus and hasn’t been part of the alleged negotiations. The Abele-backed Act 14 radically diminished the board’s role in overseeing contracts and land sales.

Don Tyler, a former NML executive who is now Abele’s director of Administrative Services, said he believed the property had been appraised at roughly $14 million but couldn’t offer any more information. He said he recused himself from the NML discussions because of his past ties to the company.

“We are in current negotiations to contemplate the potential sale of the O’Donnell structure, not the actual sale, but the potential sale,” Tyler said.

He said any detailed discussions about the potential sale would have to be done in closed session.

Dan Keegan, head of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said on Friday that about 60% of MAM’s visitors used the parking structure, and other testimony suggested its overall use would increase in the coming years with the proposed redevelopment of the lakefront, which includes a new NML tower.

“I don’t see how that sale is in the public good,” Keegan said.

O’Donnell generates more than $1 million in revenue annually and also stores county-owned equipment.