August 29, 2013
by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is involved in a war of words with the legislature while his city’s residents are ducking from the gunfire. The conflict has degenerated into yet another argument about Act 10 and the savings for the city of Milwaukee.
In response to a spike in crime on the “Fresh Coast” of Lake Michigan known as Milwaukee, Barrett called for the state legislature to pass tougher penalties for using a gun in a crime. To his surprise, Republicans readily agreed. They even dusted off an old bill that had been stalled when Democrats controlled the legislature.
Barrett was unsatisfied with his inability to score political points from the blood in the streets while distracting from his own ineffectiveness. He followed up with a demand to Governor Scott Walker and the legislature for money to pay for police overtime. Barrett planned to spend $500,000 on overtime and asked the legislature to provide matching funds.
Walker correctly said that if he gave in to Barrett, every other city would find an emergency to request state aid. Republicans also pointed out that the city was requiring police officers to take furlough days at the same time the city was asking the legislature for money for overtime.
Walker also claimed the city saved enough from Act 10 to pay for the police overtime itself. Barrett’s office responded with claims that Act 10 was a net loss for them, claims that were repeated uncritically by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and blogger/editor Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee.
However, in order to make that claim, Barrett’s budget director Mark Nicolini engages in some sleight-of-hand accounting tricks regarding the city budget – now you see the budget savings, now you don’t.
Nicolini said that when you take into account all of the cuts to Milwaukee’s budget imposed on it by the state, the city has a net loss of $6.6 million. He estimated the city saved $20 million as a result of Act 10 and other state legislation benefitting the city. He subtracted from that $13.7 million in cuts, including $1.1 million in lost recycling grants and the rest in shared revenue. He also subtracted $650,000 for the Shots Fired program. That leaves a net savings of $4,550,000, or plenty to cover police overtime.
So Nicolini, an “uber-wonk” according to Murphy, also threw on the expense side $7.7 million in labor costs for the fire and police departments, even though those increases in costs would have taken place even if Act 10 had never passed the legislature. Voila! The city is at a net loss.
Let’s walk through the numbers again. If we focus on the savings from Act 10 alone, the city comes out ahead. Based on what the city said, Milwaukee saved $15 million. State aid in shared revenue and recycling grants were cut $13.7 million. If we throw in the $650,000 for the Shots Fired program, that still leaves enough left over from the Act 10 savings alone to cover what Barrett was requesting extra from the state.
Barrett has always had a mixed reaction to Act 10, on the one hand calling for its repeal while on the other hand calling for it to be extended to police and firefighters. But Barrett and Nicolini can’t count expenses that would have occurred regardless of the passage of Act 10 against its savings, as they are attempting to do with increased costs from police and firefighters.
Murphy even adds to the error by including the costs of fighting the changes in residency rules, even though residency has nothing to do with Act 10 and the decision to fight the residency rules change is entirely on Milwaukee. At least Murphy concedes the city is likely to lose that legal fight. Too bad the city isn’t listening to him; they could save some money.
If Barrett wants to actually fight crime in his city rather than merely pick fights with legislative Republicans, he should stop misrepresenting the savings from Act 10. Rather than getting into a losing argument over Act 10, Barrett should be figuring out how to use those budget savings to deal with the spike in violent crime.
But that would mean making hard choices, and it’s always easier to blame other people for the city’s problems.