Chris Abele Fights County Board for Lower Taxes, More Efficient Government

Milwaukee County Board Deleted Property Tax Cut and May Have Broken the Law

MacIver News Service | November 25, 2013

[Milwaukee, Wisc…] Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele expressed disappointment with the County Board after they rejected his veto that would have created a $1.6 million property tax cut and reinstated an amendment that may have illegally reduced salaries for Abele’s staff.

In an interview with the MacIver News Service (MNS) on Friday, Abele said he is pleased that Milwaukee County residents will not see a property tax levy increase for the first time in years, but that the budget could have been much better.

“I’m happy we got a levy neutral budget through, but I obviously would have been happier if the budget would have gone through as I gave it to them,” Abele said.

This is the County Executive’s third budget since taking office in 2011. Each year, Abele has proposed a budget that was levy neutral, but the County Board has made changes to increase property taxes.

“Every year, I have made the point, as clearly as possible, that we don’t need to raise taxes to restore services, pay down debt, and lower the structural deficit,” Abele told MNS. He believes government can be more efficient and will have greater flexibility if the amount of debt the county has can be reduced.

Abele said his vetoes to the board’s amended budget would have lowered taxes, invested more in the rainy day fund, and provided for more services. However, the county supervisors voted to override 38 of his 39 vetoes.

Instead of providing $1.6 million in property tax relief, Milwaukee County employees will get that money invested in a fiscal savings account, similar to a health savings account. Abele, however, felt the board should think more about the one million residents that live in the county and less about the 4,400 county employees who are paid by taxpayers.

The County Board also amended Abele’s proposed budget, and voted to override his veto, to reduce salaries for some of his staff and department heads. The County Executive claims the board’s move will hurt the exact people who are helping to improve Milwaukee County.

Abele said his staff has been doing more with less the past few years and still improved outcomes. He mentioned Jim Sullivan, Director of Milwaukee County’s Child Support Services, has 14 less staff than he previously did, and his department won the award for top Child Support Agency in Wisconsin this year. Milwaukee County has never won the award before.

“These are the guys that are going to get punished,” Abele said. “I have never been in a high-functioning organization that did not allow for performance to be rewarded and accountability to be upheld. [The County Board’s decision] just flies in the face of that.”

Corporation Council, the county’s legal arm, also made Abele aware the county supervisors do not have the legal authority to make the change.

“The County Board was told, in no uncertain terms, by Corporation Council that aspect of this bill is not legal, and they passed it anyway,” Abele said. When asked if the county will implement the change, Abele told MNS that he is, “not going to do something that is not legal.”

While the final county budget is levy neutral, Abele said that he will continue to look for ways to lower taxes and debt in the future. He believes that it is absolutely possible to provide more, and better, services at a lesser cost and said reducing debt will open opportunities for new services without increasing taxes.

“The big driver of cost has been accumulating debt,” he said. “Like most people managing a budget, the line I hate the most is interest, especially when it’s not my money, it’s your money.”

Abele told the supervisors that if Milwaukee County cut its debt in half, which he admits will take some time, it would open up $50 million a year for programs without raising a dime in taxes.

The board, however, decided to override some vetoes that would have saved the county money, which frustrated Abele.

An outside audit of the staff that enforces family medical leave in the county found they were ineffective and overstaffed, according to Abele. He proposed it be outsourced to a company that could provide better services at a lower cost, but the board instead just amended the budget to add more county staff.

The final budget sets the property tax levy at just over $279 million for 2014, the same as the previous year.