Milwaukee Talks: County Executive Chris Abele
Though we've chatted with Chris Abele before, last week he sat down with us for the first Milwaukee Talks since he became county executive in 2011.
In a question and answer session that lasted exactly an hour, Abele discussed his wins and frustrations as county executive. He talked transit, Downtown development and his relationships with the county board, the sheriff, the mayor of Milwaukee and the governor.
I also asked him about the "The Calling," of course.
Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
OnMilwaukee.com: Let's talk a bit about the status of the operator of MCTS. I know that that's been blocked at the moment. Where do things stand?
Chris Abele: The quick background is, and I'm sure most of your readers know, Milwaukee County operates a transit system, and bus service, for probably the last 12, 13, 14 years, every year, bus service has declined. Either routes have been cut or been made less frequent. Fares have been raised.
One of the interesting things about this part of the County is we don't directly manage it. We actually contract out with this nonprofit. MCTS is a separate group. It got pulled in-house in '76 into the County, and it's been the same group ever since. I had been concerned about the relative efficiency of management, some contracts that were mismanaged, and this was written about, there was one in particular that caused an extra $8 million. That's frustrating to see when we had this tight budget. I'm doing everything I can to restore services.
I asked when the last time the County had actually done a competitive bid, and I mean really aggressively sought out proposals. While it has been put up for bid before, at least the last couple of times, nobody else had submitted a proposal.
OMC: So sort of a done deal.
CA: Yeah. You wonder how seriously people wanted to see competitive bids. In any event, we put it out, and we had five companies submit proposals, including the current MCTS.
The reason I was excited about the one that was selected primarily was a number of things, but it would have meant, in a five-year contract, $15 million a year more in service. To put that in perspective, without a dime more in tax dollars, we would wipe out probably the last 12 years of cuts in service and go all the way back up to … more routes, lower fare. I mean you could do a lot of different things, but we would have that much more service without having to pay more and for five years and a contract that protects the County a lot more, like the current one does. When the current Board, the supervisors essentially threw out the process, obviously I was frustrated, but I still want to get better service, so the sooner we can get out an RFP, which is my strong preference, again, the better.
The issue now is the County Board is in a number of different places. There are some people on the Board, including the chairwoman, who want to do another RFP as soon as possible. Supervisor (Michael) Mayo had an editorial in the Journal saying, "Let's do another RFP as soon as possible." Then you have other supervisors who want to take it in-house so the County would run Transit. Then there is a couple of supervisors who are interested in this hybrid idea where we do some and then we'd outsource the other. It's not entirely clear to me.
But like all legislative bodies, the problem here is nobody has authority as an individual. They only have authority as a body. I need some kind of clarity from the group, "Hey, pick a lane." Honestly, I'll tell you, I worry about in-housing because I just … It's safe to say I don't think I could provide 15 million a year more in service doing that.
OMC: Is that going backwards, in a sense? Isn't there a reason that County decided not to do it in-house? Is there expertise within the County to run a transit system?
CA: Yeah, that would be my sense. If you look around, and we've asked with the Federal Transit Administration and others if they know of any municipality that has gone in that direction, brought it back in-house. There may be some, but we couldn't find examples. Generally, more people are doing what we are trying to do, which is put it out for bid and just see if we can get good value.
To me, it's not about privatization or not. It's about efficiency. My goal is to get the best value for the people who put me in office whatever the service is the best way I can. In the case of, say, Family Care, when I got to Milwaukee County three years ago ... we managed Family Care for Milwaukee. Now, we manage it for eight counties. We administer it, and presumably, it's because we do a good job at it.
My feeling is just however we can get the most effective value and service for your dollar, that's the way to do it, not privatize for its own sake. But in this case, the opportunity to do more is compelling, and importantly, Transit has such a big impact on economic development, 151,000 riders every day, about 43,000 for MATC, 19,000 for UWM, about 40,000, that's just every day going to work. If we could add more service and lower, to provide more access and more frequent routes, get people maybe some access to jobs in Waukesha and went back and forth, and there used to be more of that, I would love to do it.
OMC: Was part of the discussion in the last RFP better connections to neighboring counties?
OMC: Because that's been an issue.
CA: Absolutely, yeah, it is. If you privatize, the County still has the final say on what routes are and what the fares are, so it's not like some company can come in and just jack up fares. The County Board would still have sign-off on that, as they should. It's just that there's a lot of companies that are very good at doing this that do this for hundreds of cities around the country, around the world, and they have a lot of efficiencies, and they're good at it.
OMC: That presumably is where that $15 million comes from (and) that MCTS presumably says they can't do.
CA: It's in administration, yeah, and the way we wrote the contract, we weren't simply trying to say to potential bidders, "Save us money so then we can bring it back to the house as it were." We said, "Whatever you can save we want to plow back into more service."
That's why I was excited about the contract. But obviously, for the time being, I would like some clarity from the supervisors about one track because right now, I have to, as the executive, I have to prepare for all possibilities. Just doing that is costing a lot of money, and it's a lot of people's time. The sooner we get a final answer here, I think, the sooner we'll be able to be able to start providing more service. I think the RFP is the clear way to go, but we'll see what happens.
OMC: What did MCTS' bid look like? Did they basically say, "We would just keep doing the same thing?" Because they're in a tricky situation -- if they say they can do better, then why aren't they?
CA: Yeah, right. That was my thought from a distance, too. I suppose, just to be clear, because it's been speculated otherwise, when we contract things out, elected officials should be as far as possible from the process of selecting vendors, which is why we had a panel that evaluated all the submissions and proposals. I didn't know who was on the panel, and I shouldn't know. I didn't know who was bidding. I had never heard of MV before this, but that's the point. That's how it should be. Whether it's MV that wins next time or whatever company, the goal is just better service. But I think, just to clarify, I have no particular set goal in mind other than as much bus service as I can get for you for the dollar.
OMC: What's your position on the streetcar?
CA: What I hope is that the streetcar gets built in a way that leverages what our bus service is. I've seen some interesting ideas about, depending on how the development of and the timing of The Couture, maybe moving a spur down that way, which I think would be great because you're talking about where thousands of people are going to be working in, so there's going to be more traffic down there and certainly better access to the lakefront.
I also know that the money that the City's got to use, because we had some of this too at County, it's federal money and it's limited it. It is not the case that we can use it for anything we want, say, potholes or crime or other things that have been tossed around. I mean everybody wants to lower crime, everybody wants to address potholes, but there's limits on how you can use it.
I've never quite understood the white hot antipathy some people seem to feel towards the streetcar. It's federal transportation money. There is a good argument in most cities of any scale around the country that have something like this, some kind of light rail, seemed to like it.
OMC: Has the City talked to the County or to MCTS in any way to bring you all to the table on how the streetcar ties into a bigger vision ... how it links to (MCTS routes)?
CA: Sure, yeah. I know that the City obviously has an interest in coordinating that service with us. We work with the City on a lot of things, including this, and I should say for the record too that when I've spent time in Madison advocating for our legislature to restore funding for Transit, the Mayor has been there to help. The City doesn't run Transit, we do, but he knows, "Hey, but this impacts all of us."
I think you're absolutely right. I think we, as a group of elected leaders of publicly funded institutions around here, are a lot more effective when we work together than if we look for ways to argue about things. My feeling about the streetcar, I think it's one of these things, I think it's something that could be fantastic.
I have a feeling that … I've seen a lot of light rail installations in other cities, and you've probably read some of this stuff too, where even places that have initially opposed it, usually by the third or fourth year anyway, there's at least as many people who like it, and by the fifth or sixth year, the only question you're getting is, "Who gets the next stop and when can we expand it?" Houston, I think, is a good model of that.
OMC: Have you found working with Mayor Barrett to be beneficial to the city?
CA: That's a really good question. I actually think that's one of the most important issues that touches probably every public policy question you're going to ask me about. Partisanship in this country now is about as high as it's been in our certainly generation. We've gone up and down in ways in the history of this country, but we are … There is a reason Congress has a, what, 9 percent approval rating. It's because of both sides, I mean nobody sees anything other than arguing, finger-pointing who's the enemy, who's the bad guy, who we should be angry at, as opposed to look, let's start with we're all citizens of a great country, and for all our flaws, the ideals of the country are incredible.
I've worked hard, maybe not always successfully, but I've worked hard to have as good a relationship as I can with anybody of any party. I've got a great relationship with the governor. A lot of his staff, a lot of Republicans in the legislature I've got a great relationship, and I've long been a supporter of Mayor Barrett. I didn't sign the recall. I did lend the mayor my campaign office when he was running against the governor. I like to talk about what I'm for, not what I'm against. I just feel like we're able to get a lot more done when we're looking for solutions, not enemies.
We've had some success. I mean, this Behavioral Health Division Bill, which has passed in the state legislature, was 122 to 1. With one exception, every single Republican and every single Democrat agreed and wasn't thinking about politics or who wins or loses or who gets credit. They were just thinking about we need to do better for the people we're serving. We've been lucky enough to have a few of those. Yeah, I have an easy time working with the Mayor. He's got a lot of talented people in his office. I've had an easy time working with the Governor.
It's OK to work with people … You don't have to agree with people on everything to work with them. More importantly, I don't have a compelling need to hate people who disagree with me, which seems to make a lot of media, unfortunately.
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