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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

County Board Restores Accountability to Abele’s Budget

All but one veto is overridden

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Last week, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors overrode all but one of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s 39 vetoes in the 2014 budget, providing more oversight of the county’s behavior health downsizing process, raising questions about Abele’s intention to sell the O’Donnell Park parking facility next year, and capping top aides’ pay at $120,000.

The only veto the board sustained was over a $100,000 grant for targeted case management services at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW), a veto that supervisors debated hotly. The board’s amendment would have sent the money directly to ARCW; Abele’s veto earmarked it for targeted case management. [CORRECTION: See below.]

Not surprisingly, supervisors questioned the wisdom of some of Abele’s strike-throughs, and were even puzzled by the vetoes themselves. The county executive has one of the most powerful vetoes invented—the so-called Vanna White veto, which allows him to use or delete individual letters to form new words and sentences.

For example, Abele’s original budget includes a $1 million cut in parking revenue from O’Donnell Park; Abele justified it by saying that the facility would be sold in the fourth quarter of 2014. The board then restored that funding, saying that there is no public plan to sell that facility and the county shouldn’t assume that it would be sold within Abele’s timeframe.

“This is something that requires good public input,” Supervisor Pat Jursik said.

To get back to the original $1 million revenue cut, Abele used his Vanna White veto to slice and dice the board’s amendment so that individual letters spelled out O’Donnell Park “may be sold. Account for lost revenue.”

 “This is open, transparent government?” queried Supervisor David Cullen on Abele’s creative use of the veto pen.

The board overrode Abele’s O’Donnell Park veto 18-0.

The board also overrode Abele’s veto of semi-annual reports on the Behavioral Health Division’s attempt to place acute-care individuals into the community. The county hasn’t reached its goal numbers for 2013, and supervisors are concerned that Abele’s downsizing plan is too aggressive and will lead to acute-care patients going without care due to the lack of available beds and services in private hospitals.

Supervisor David Bowen said that the amendment only sought information so that the board can provide needed oversight of the transition.

“It’s important for us to have this information,” Bowen said.

The board overrode Abele’s veto 13-5.

The board also rejected Abele’s plan to outsource Community Support Programs, which serve 337 people with severe mental illnesses annually.

In his veto message, Abele said the county employees’ personnel costs were too expensive.

But Supervisor Peggy Romo West said that the cost of service should be measured by quality of life and services and client recidivism.

The board overrode Abele’s veto 15-3.

Correction: I got a nice call from Bill Keaton of ARCW, explaining the convoluted history of this grant. It's true that in the end, the board did not override Abele's veto. But what, exactly, was being proposed and vetoed? It seems that in the previous budget, the board had added an amendment granting $100,000 to ARCW for HIV and opiate overdose prevention activities. That's a good thing. But the county executive vetoed that provision, which the board then overrode. Flash-forward to this budget. According to Keaton, Abele repurposed this money to initiate a pilot program to provide targeted case management for about 50 individuals in recovery. The board then vetoed that provision so that the money could be used for its original intent. Abele then used his Vanna White veto to reintroduce his pilot program. After much debate, the board sustained Abele's veto 11-7. Sorry for the confusion. And thanks, Bill, for clarifying what happened.

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