The Milwaukee County Board’s Unquenchable Thirst for More Spending

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Because of Milwaukee County’s sheer size in terms of population and impact on the state’s economy, what happens to Milwaukee County is of interest to everyone in Wisconsin. Making Milwaukee County government even more interesting to the state is current Governor Scott Walker, the former Milwaukee County Executive. Walker is still having an impact on county government in his legacy and as the governor.

The recent budget struggle between the current county executive gives us some insight into the nature of the beast that is Milwaukee County government. Despite a change in the county executive’s office, including in political orientation, a pattern of spending growth driven by the county board continues.

Walker’s successor in Milwaukee, County Executive Chris Abele, may come from the opposing side politically, but Abele tried to follow in Walker’s footsteps by proposing a county budget with zero increase in the tax levy despite a $55 million budget deficit. Among the items cut in the budget, parks positions and the sheriff’s budget.

Abele also took advantage of Governor Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reforms by making changes to county employee health benefits. Abele’s budget estimated $25 million in savings by putting county workers on a single health plan with higher premiums, co-pays and deductibles.

Just like when Walker was the Milwaukee County Executive, the county board was not willing to pass a budget without spending increases. They proposed a $6.25 million tax levy increase. Included in the spending were modifications to Abele’s plan to reduce the county’s health care costs, $ 3,098,817 more added to the tax levy. In addition, they created a wellness program that would cost the county an additional $434,663.

Among the other items, the county board decided to employ security guards in house rather than outsource them, a point of contention between them and Walker, an additional $418,183. No fight is ever too old to re-fight again. However they did not have the votes to hire cleaning people rather than continue to use an outside vendor.

If you want a peek inside the county board’s thinking, County Supervisor Eyon Biddle, Sr recently criticized Abele for supporting a new County Comptroller position, accusing Abele of caving in to “special interests.” “In this case, the Greater Milwaukee Committee is a special interest group trying to undermine County government. I hope that, in the future, the County Executive will work with the County Board, rather than against us, when considering items that alter the structure of County government.”

Biddle was the supervisor who attempted to amend the county budget  to have county buildings cleaned by county employees, and was successful in getting rid of the private guard service at county buildings.

In the minds of the Milwaukee County Board, the only special interests are those in favor of controlling spending, not those who are in favor of more county spending.

However, fans of the county-owned fish hatchery will be sad to learn that this highly fought-over item may finally be passed into private hands. Abele planned to discontinue operation of the fish hatchery in 2014. The county board put into the budget to enter into discussions for the Hunger Task Force to lease the operation from the county. We only have two more years to see if it actually happens.

Intent on proving “it’s déjà vu all over again,” County Board Chairman Lee Holloway issued a statement after the board passed their version of the budget, “Even though we have a new County Executive, this budget reminded me of what we were handed in previous years. Because of the tax levy freeze, Supervisors were forced to do all the heavy lifting.”

Again, just like when Walker was the county executive, Abele used his veto power to bring the budget back to a zero increase in the levy. Abele issued 23 vetoes, including the increased spending for employee health care. Abele also vetoed money restored to the budget for park patrols by the sheriff’s office ($1,551,991) and aid to local municipalities for emergency medical services ($722,527).

Unsurprisingly, Holloway and the county board overrode 18 of Abele’s vetoes, increasing the tax levy by $5.8 million. Abele’s veto of the wellness program was sustained, but out-of-pocket health care costs for county employees are still lower than what Abele had proposed. The county board also had the votes to restore the $1,551,991 for the sheriff’s office and the $722,527 for local emergency medical services.

These events seemed like a replay to Holloway, too, only more so. “The County Board this afternoon voted to override more than 78% of County Executive Abele’s budget vetoes. This is higher than the percentage of vetoes overridden during Scott Walker’s eight years as Milwaukee County Executive. There really isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between these two Executives,” Holloway said in a statement following the veto overrides.

Actually, Abele may have a few more nickels in his pocket than Walker, but the result is the same. If Abele thought that bringing county spending under control would be easy, he just learned the hard way that regardless of who is in charge the county board has a thirst for more spending.