In Milwaukee County, Walker Again Keeps Tax Pledge

If the Milwaukee County Board was spoiling for a fight with new Governor-elect and current County Executive Scott Walker, it probably did not help their cause when former Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament resurfaced last week. Ament offered to fill in as temporary executive once Walker moves into his new office in Madison.

It is like mentioning fire in a house that has just been repaired after an arson fire. The thought of Ament as county executive again sent shivers up the spines of most taxpayers, even if some county supervisors still think of Ament’s tenure as the Good Old Days.

Ament’s re-emergence from hiding was a timely reminder on the long-term problems facing Milwaukee County. Unless county employee benefits and wages are brought under control, the consequences for Milwaukee County’s finances and Milwaukee County’s taxpayers will be dire.

If we are looking for an insight into the kind of fiscal conservatism expected from Governor-elect Scott Walker, we need not look any further than the vetoes of the Milwaukee County Budget he issued on Friday. As County Executive, Walker proffered sixteen vetoes of the amendments to his proposed county budget including that of the board-imposed increase in the tax levy.

The sixteen vetoes of the county board’s spending increases reduced the county’s proposed tax levy by $7,405,948. After amending the county executive’s proposed budget, the county board’s proposed tax levy was $269,554,701. After Walker’s vetoes, the proposed tax levy is $262,148,753, or approximately $1 million less than the 2010 tax levy.

The vetoes included increased wage and benefit compensation for Milwaukee County employees over what Walker had proposed. Walker’s budget was criticized for including yet-to-be-negotiated wage and benefit concessions. However, the county board did not change that approach to the budget. They only lessened the impact of the concessions on county employees, recognition finally that something must be done to control employee wage and benefit costs.

Walker’s vetoes restored the amount of concessions he requested from county employees, and thereby reduced the proposed tax levy by over $5.9 million. For example, the county board voted to reduce the required pension contribution by employees from 5% to 4%. Walker’s twelfth veto restored the higher pension contribution obligation for a net reduction of the tax levy of $4,481,784.

While it’s good to see the county board starting to get the principle, they aren’t quite adept at the concept of finding savings by cutting employee benefit costs yet. For example, the county board voted to amend the proposed budget to contribute to the employee health flex spending accounts. Walker vetoed the contribution, cutting $489,779 from the tax levy.

Walker also vetoed amendments to the county budget that would have increased county borrowing by an additional $13.2 million. While the borrowing would not have had a direct impact on the tax levy for 2011, future budgets would have borne the impact of service for the additional debt. Walker said the annual service on the additional bonding would be over $1.1 million.

As Walker said in his veto message, “…$1.1 million is approximately the same level of funding required to operate all of 10 of the County’s outdoor pools and the King and Kosciuszko Community Centers. Alternatively, $1.1 million is the amount of funding that would cover the cost of over 100 seasonal workers to maintain our County parks.”

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway called the vetoes “low-hanging fruit” and said it would be difficult for county supervisors to override Walker’s vetoes. Of course, given the supposed “low-hanging fruit,” taxpayers should wonder why county board members including Holloway planted the orchard before sending Walker the revised budget.

After all, county board members again decided to add $139,400 in funding to county budget for a redundant and unnecessary fish hatchery. Walker again vetoed the fish hatchery. We will see if the county board and Chairman Lee Holloway are in any way ready to tackle the spending problems confronting the county, or if the county board will again override the veto.

Presiding over the second largest budget in the state, Walker has forced a change in the way Milwaukee County thinks about government spending. With these budget vetoes Walker again holds the line on spending, this time to actually reduce the property tax levy.

Given the actions of the board under Holloway to increase spending, it is unlikely the temporary successor to Walker that Holloway will have the power to appoint will be tough on spending. Hopefully the next county executive chosen by the voters will continue to find the “low hanging fruit” Holloway continues to plant.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute