Milwaukee Residents Benefit from Mayor’s Political Posturing

City of Milwaukee residents are probably wishing there was an election every year. Oh sure, the constant barrage of political television ads and “robocalls” from political campaigns can be annoying. “Honey, will you answer the phone? It’s probably President Obama again reminding us to vote.”

But those annoyances are a small price to pay for a city budget that does not raise taxes or substantially raise fees. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett had an election year Road to Damascus experience, and the Milwaukee Common Council followed the new no-tax-increase religion.

Amazing, really, a modern day miracle.

For the first time since Barrett took office, Milwaukee will not be seeing an increase to the property tax levy. The mayor actually proposed a budget that hewed to the line first lain down by his counterpart, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. When the mayor proposed the budget, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The recovery is slow and people are hurting.”

That was true last year as well but it did not stop the mayor from proposing a tax increase then. Mayor Barrett proposed an increase in the rate by 10% and an increase in the tax levy by 4.4%.

This is in addition to the increases in fees. Last year, Mayor Barrett wanted to increase the solid waste fee 13%, the sewer fee 10.5%, and the storm water fee 19%.

This year the only fee increase is an additional 88 cents in the storm water charge. Of course, the extra money is not for handling increased storm water costs. That is not how the budget works. That “storm water” money is for keeping the tree-trimming schedule at every six years instead of every seven years.

Good thing Milwaukee does not experience any flooding. The trees might not get trimmed on time.

The good news on city fees is that the solid waste fee is going down. Milwaukee residents will pay $2 less next year.

Unfortunately residents will not be able to dispose as much solid waste as before. Residents will be restricted to disposing only one cubic yard outside the giant green bin. Body disposal after one of the city’s many homicides just became more difficult.

In exchange for this inconvenience, residents will now be able to call a hotline when they spot someone illegally dumping waste in a vacant field. The city discovered that when they imposed a $15 fee last year on disposing of construction waste, some of the construction waste was improperly disposed. This sudden introduction to economics prompted the city to spend $25,000 on the new hotline. Apparently calling the non-emergency line at the police department is too difficult for city residents.

Residents can now collect $250 if an illegal dumper is convicted thanks to their tips. Good look to all those watchful eyes out there.

Underwriting all this good feeling about the budget is the news the city received this year that they were not under an obligation to contribute to the city employee pension fund this year. City investments paid off handsomely this last year sparing the city from having to supplement the pension fund with tax dollars. While the city is still making a voluntary $17.35 million payment to the pension reserved fund, that is still a far cry from the $49 million that had to be budgeted last year.

With over $31 million extra to play with, you might think the mayor and the common council would have substantially lowered the city’s tax levy. Instead, they only lowered the tax levy $51,255. The rest of the taxpayer money managed to get spent by the mayor and the Common Council without too much trouble.

While Milwaukee residents are probably grateful for the one-year break in the relentless increases in taxes, they should probably wonder what will happen when the city’s politicians, including the mayor, are not in the middle of election cycle, and what will happen when the city doesn’t have an extra $49 million to play with. The track record would indicate this is a just a brief pause in the ever-increasing taxes and fees, regardless of the economy.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute