Abele vs. Milwaukee County Board: Tax Cuts or Tax Hikes?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

After the Milwaukee County Board had their turn with the budget, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele took his turn on Tuesday with his veto pen. The result is a county budget, if it stands, that actually cuts taxes by $2.4 million.

From a zero increase in the tax levy, as originally proposed, to a nearly $4 million tax increase proposed by the county board, to an actual tax cut. It’s been a roller coaster ride for Milwaukee County taxpayers.

Milwaukee County Supervisors will meet Wednesday at 1:30 PM to consider overrides of each of Abele’s 25 vetoes.

The biggest conflict between the County Board and the County Executive will be over the veto of the taxpayer contribution to county employee Fiscal Savings Accounts (FSA), the county version of Health Savings Accounts. In the budget as the Board approved it, the taxpayers would contribute $1,800 to each employee’s FSA. Abele’s veto would end the taxpayer contribution. The estimated savings for taxpayers is $3.6 million, provided the county board does not override Abele’s veto.

Another major area where Abele is attempting to find savings is in police patrols for county parks. Under an agreement reached with the city of Milwaukee, the County Sheriff’s Department would stop patrolling county parks and instead the county would pay the city of Milwaukee Police Department $1.7 million to do the job. Smaller communities would split $125,000 for the parks in their communities. That would result in a cut to the sheriff’s budget of $3.3 million.

Sheriff David Clarke and the board objected to having the city of Milwaukee police patrol the parks, and the board put back in the budget an amount previously deemed inadequate by Clarke to pay for the park patrols. None of the local police departments or the elected officials from the smaller municipalities objected to Abele’s plan.

The proposal actually put Clarke on the same side as the Milwaukee County Board, proving that politics makes strange bedfellows. However, the board is a fickle lover and it supported an effort to take supervision of the County Jail in Franklin away from the sheriff’s department, instead placing the supervision with a newly created position under the county executive.

Perhaps symbolic of the approach Abele has taken to the county budget, he vetoed the appropriation for the controversial arts program that was the genesis of the infamous “Blue Shirt” art project. Under Abele’s predecessor Scott Walker, killing the “Blue Shirt” art project at Mitchell International Airport was a sign that the county was in a new era when it came to the stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Now Abele has gone one step further, refusing to borrow for public art through the allocation of a percentage of the bonded amount for construction costs. Instead, Abele would only fund public art projects through a small percentage from land sales, saving taxpayers the interest payments on bad public art.

Abele also vetoed participation in the Emerald Cities program, a program that uses taxpayer money to make homes more energy efficient. The budget item was only a commitment to the program and not a specific dollar amount. However, the city of Milwaukee ended up using Federal Stimulus funds to pay for the program after homeowners did not sign up for loans that would be repaid with their property taxes. It was unclear from where funding for county participation in the Emerald Cities program would come.

The budget battle between the county executive and the county board has sometimes seemed more like a battle for governmental supremacy than a fiscal battle. For example, the county board attempted to eliminate and then re-create the position of Economic Development Director. The county board is attempting to place the position under its authority and force current director Brian Taffora to re-apply for the position. Taffora is controversial in part because of the residency waiver he was granted after his home in Ozaukee County failed to sell. But that hides an underlying conflict between the board and the county executive over the amount of involvement the board should have in redevelopment projects.

Similarly, the board and the county executive have fought over whether the county executive should have a lobbyist under his direction in Madison. The county board currently has two. On the flip side, Abele vetoed a budget item that would have funded outside legal counsel for the county board.

However, if the county board really wants to set the example that they should be entrusted with more day-to-day input in county government, they need to show that they are better stewards of the taxpayers’ money. While there is still room for improvement, on that score Abele is winning.