A Cavalier Cash Grab

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said for months he needed more shared revenue and a new sales tax for vital city services. But Dan O’Donnell discovered that he was really angling for massive raises for himself and his cronies.

Oct. 11, 2023
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson was desperate, all but begging the Wisconsin Senate for a dramatic increase in shared revenue and the ability to levy a new 2% sales tax.

“Without question, my city’s financial situation is dire,” he gravely intoned during a committee hearing in May, warning of “catastrophic budget cuts” if Senators didn’t give him everything he wanted, nay, needed.  “By 2025, the city will face insolvency, which will force massive cuts to general city workers, firefighters, as well as police officers that will dramatically increase our emergency response times.”

Johnson said he would give long time employees a 2-3% raise. Secretly, he planned a 15% raise for himself and the common council.

This wouldn’t be a bailout for decades of mismanagement of an overly generous pension system, Johnson promised Senators: It would be a Hail Mary to “stave off the coming fiscal cliff.” So bleak was the outlook that Milwaukee couldn’t even risk its voters rejecting the new sales tax in a referendum that legislative Republicans originally included in their shared revenue proposal.

Once they relented and removed the referendum requirement from their bill, the Common Council quickly approved the tax and Johnson signed off on it.  Milwaukee was finally, thankfully saved!  Police officers wouldn’t be laid off, firefighters wouldn’t be furloughed, and city services wouldn’t be eliminated altogether.

“The previous trend of service cuts and draws on our reserves is behind us,” he proudly proclaimed in his annual budget address last month.  “Our new direction takes us on a path toward fiscal stability.  That’s not to say we are now flush with cash. The revenue derived from the city’s coming sales tax is dedicated to paying for new police officers, new firefighters, and closing out the city’s pension system.”

Still, there would be enough left over for small raises for Milwaukee’s hardworking employees; those who keep the city running but have been grossly underpaid amid the budget crisis.

“Employees, I value your service; I value your dedication; and I value your patience,” he told them. “The demands we placed on you will ease, and my budget includes a modest, across the board pay increase for general city employees.”

Johnson stressed that these raises wouldn’t be fiscally irresponsible—just 2% or 3% for employees with at least five years of service to the city—but it was the least he could do for them.

It was also far less than he was secretly planning to do for himself.  Last week, unbeknownst to the public or the Wisconsin Legislature who came to Milwaukee’s rescue, Johnson introduced a plan to increase his own pay and that of his political allies on the Common Council by a whopping 15%.

Johnson begged for millions in state revenue and millions more in sales tax dollars to keep Milwaukee’s lights on and streets safe but, when he thought no one was looking, grabbed a little bit for himself and his cronies.

In an email to members of the Council on October 4th, the city’s Employment Relations Director Harper Donahue IV shared details of Johnson’s Executive Pay Plan, which includes an immediate $22,000 raise for Johnson himself.  His annual salary would increase from $147,335.76 to $169,436.12 while aldermen salaries would rise from $73,222.24 to $84,205.58.  The Common Council President would see his pay boosted from $82,749.16 to $94,310.25.

The Common Council would have to approve these massive raises, and in his email Donahue IV seems acutely aware of how bad they will look to the public.

“I am acutely aware of many of the perplexities you may be wrestling with in your need to balance fair compensation with requirements associated with being a responsible steward of limited resources,” he wrote, “and I want to provide any necessary information to assist you with your related decision-making.”

Really, no more information is needed. Johnson begged for millions in state revenue and millions more in sales tax dollars to keep Milwaukee’s lights on and streets safe but, when he thought no one was looking, grabbed a little bit for himself and his cronies.

This would be slightly less nauseating if it wasn’t accompanied by his very public trumpeting of his own generosity in giving rank-and-file city employees the scraps from his table.  What an illuminating contrast: The powerful and politically connected do everything they can to hide the 15% raises they’re giving themselves while bragging to anyone who will listen that they are so generous to the help as to give them a 2% pay increase.

Even more illuminating is what this episode reveals about the contrast between the responsible, dignified, and deeply caring Cavalier Johnson that is presented to the public and the conniving, greedy, and shameless Cavalier Johnson who lurks behind the mask.

He has now shown his true face, and it’s worth taking a long, hard look.