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The Battle over the Milwaukee County Budget

Currently, Milwaukee County Board supervisors are in a battle with County Executive Scott Walker over the budget process.  As with most government budgets, there are disagreements in management philosophy.  Walker wants to scale back the size of government and reduce taxes on county residents.  The County Board wants to sustain county jobs and raise taxes in order to preserve the county's social programs.  In sum, one philosophy is conservative and the other is, well, more expensive. 

As the battled raged on, at one point, it escalated out of control.  County Board Chairmen, Lee Holloway, lashed out at Walker accusing him of being a race-baiter and compared him to a former Ku Klux Klansman.  His actions surprised many, and they elicited a stern rebuke from fellow County Board Supervisors and even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Shortly after, Holloway retracted his accusation comparing Walker to a Ku Klux Klansman.   

Part of Milwaukee's fiscal problem is related to a pension scandal that rocked Milwaukee County a few years back.  It put the county into a 50 million dollar hole, and has made it difficult to reconcile during a tough recession.  Over 100 county employees found a loop hole allowing them to skirt county laws and federal tax rules in order to amp up their own pensions.  One employee, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, qualified for a 25% pension increase because she worked a half day back in 1978.  This pension ordeal has placed a lot of stress on the budget process

Right now, county governments in Wisconsin have three options to balance their budgets.  First, they can raise taxes.  This will preserve some government programs and help fill budget holes.  Second, they can reduce the amount of government programs.  This will cut costs and reduce overall debt.  And third, they can reduce the size of the county workforce, which will save taxpayers a bundle in health care benefits and pension costs. 

In Manitowoc County, for instance, their Executive has proposed a 5% pay reduction for county employees.  In the Eau Claire and Sauk Counties, they are raising property taxes by 3%.  In La Cross County, the Executive is raising taxes by 5% and cutting human services.  And in Brown County, they are doing all three by cutting social programs, cutting county employee positions, and raising taxes by 1.5%. 

In order to fix the mess in Milwaukee County, Executive Scott Walker has proposed a budget that requires a significant sacrifice from county employees while committing to a 0% tax increase.  Walker is requiring county employees to take a 3% pay reduction, to make a 5% contribution to their pension, and to pay in 15% of their health care costs.  According to Walker, these adjustments will save Milwaukee County taxpayers $41 million in costs.

Although the County Board voted down a union proposal not to lay off county employees, they have a history of resisting government reductions.  This puts the County Board in a peculiar situation.  On the one side, the AFSCME will fight to prevent any scale-back of employee benefits.  On the other side, Scott Walker will veto any item that involves a tax increase on Milwaukee County residents.  The Board cannot have it both ways.  If they choose to preserve county jobs and county programs, they will have to raise property taxes.  If they choose to avoid tax increases, employee concessions are inevitable, which will pit them up against the largest union in Wisconsin.  It will be an interesting battle to watch to say the least.  

 

Comments (6)
  • Chris Liebenthal  - Not quite true

    The County Board's A & F Committee is suggesting a $20 wheel tax instead of the usual $12 property tax increase.

    Either way, it won't work. Walker's proposal was faulty to begin with, and unless they totally dismantled it and started from scratch, theirs will be faulty too.

    But you will find out in a couple of weeks when Walker gets his butt handed to him by a judge for his illegal bargaining tactics. You'd think that someone that wanted to be governor would want to follow the law.

    Either way, this will end up costing you a lot more than it would have originally, if Walker had done things the way he was supposed to: Legally.

  • Jason Crye

    Chris,

    You better be right about the judge, because if you're not, you know I will rub your face in it.

  • jpk

    Nice post, less fanatically loyal to Walker than the others. Keep up the impartiality and I'll keep reading.

    Given what other counties are doing with their 2010 budgets, do you think Walker's budget and "0% tax increase" commitment are realistic?

  • Jason Crye

    JPK,

    Quote:
    Nice post, less fanatically loyal to Walker than the others. Keep up the impartiality and I'll keep reading.


    Fanatical?

    Quote:
    Given what other counties are doing with their 2010 budgets, do you think Walker's budget and "0% tax increase" commitment are realistic?

    That depends what you mean by realistic. By realistic, do you mean "not likely to happen" given the political dynamics" or "not reasonable given the context of the recession?"

  • jpk

    @Aaaron
    Yes, fanatical - meaning I have yet to see any kind of critical thinking about Walker from you - only devotion. Post a criticism of him (or show me a link) and I won't consider you a fanboy anymore.

    About the realistic comment, originally I meant "not reasonable," but I'd be interested in your take with both interpretations - about how Walker's proposed budget is not likely to happen and/or unreasonable when compared with his peers' budgets.

  • Jason Crye
    Quote:
    Yes, fanatical - meaning I have yet to see any kind of critical thinking about Walker from you - only devotion. Post a criticism of him (or show me a link) and I won't consider you a fanboy anymore.

    First, critical thinking involves more than providing criticisms. The two terms share etymology, but they are not synonymous. I feel that my commentary on Walker provides careful, analytical thinking. You may not agree with the conclusions, but then again, you don't have to.

    I suppose if I had to try and find something to criticize, I could write something about one of his department heads not catching a formula change in state funding until last month, but I'm not sure what sense that would make because (A. the liberal bloggers are all over it, and (B. the blame can extend well beyond Milwaukee County.

    Quote:
    About the realistic comment, originally I meant "not reasonable," but I'd be interested in your take with both interpretations - about how Walker's proposed budget is not likely to happen and/or unreasonable when compared with his peers' budgets.


    I think this is a good question. Perhaps Walker already knows how unreasonable it is, but he's wise enough to understand how the bargaining process works. Never start where you want to end up.

    Or perhaps he understands that the leverage is on his already in his favor. The recession has a funny way of turning people off to tax increases. And given the election coverage we're witnessing on the east coast, I think people are growing frustrated with the financing of big government.

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