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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Nov. 21, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

The county board doesn't create legislation. Mainly it manages programs designed and funded by the state. (PHOTO: )

Proposal for referendum on county board future gives people a voice

I hate to sound like some old codger, always talking about the good old days, but sometimes a little historical perspective is helpful.

In the mid-'80s I was working at a local television station. Among other things, I hosted a Sunday morning television show that explored local issues. For one of those shows I did a news piece and then had guests come in to discuss the Milwaukee County Board. The question posed for the show was whether we needed a big, full-time county board.

I don't remember what the answer was, but I sure remember talking seriously about it.

Now we move ahead three decades and today we are about to have the same discussion. A former supervisor who is now in the state Assembly has legislation that would give voters in the county the right to determine whether the board should be smaller, poorer and meet less frequently.

Needless to say, the reaction from County Board members is one of horror at the thought that they might lose their $50,000 a year jobs and their ability to strike fear into the hearts of thousands of county employees by micromanaging their departments and their tasks.

We are going to fight this battle for real in Milwaukee now that the state legislature seems like it might at least call for a referendum.

So we need to be hip to the arguments we're going to hear.

The biggest protest to this idea is going to come from the County Board itself.

We are already hearing screaming about how the board is a part of the checks and balance system of county government. They are shouting about how this would be a loss of local control how it would leave "the people" without representation.

Hogwash. Let's just take a look at what the county board is supposed to do. It doesn't create legislation. Mainly it manages programs designed and funded by the state. The jail, mental health complex, things like that.

As it says in their titles, the county board members are supposed to "supervise" the activities of the departments of county government. But I can tell you they act like little kings of their departments. Just hear that a supervisor is coming to visit and the world turns frantic, cleaning the office, getting files in order, making sure nobody wears jeans to work. It's like getting ready for a potentate.

Our County Board is one of the biggest and most expensive in the nation. Its annual budget is in the neighborhood of $6 million. Supervisors have a staff, to do what, I'm not totally sure. But they've got one.

When you start to think about what the county board does, it's helpful to take a look at their own view. Like most government bodies, they operate by the committee system. Here, from their very own website, is a description of the committees and what they are supposed to do.

  • Economic and Community Development
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the second Monday before the County Board Meeting
    The Economic and Community Development oversees the administration of federal, state and local housing programs in the county, including the Urban Community Development Block Grant Program. Matters pertaining to economic development of Milwaukee County, including the best disposition of county properties, are decided by this Committee. It also makes decisions on the Research Park and the Airport Business Park.
  • Finance, Personnel and Audit (2013 Budget Hearing Information)
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the first Thursday before the County Board Meeting
    County budget matters, taxation and insurance are all reviewed by this Committee. Audit reports are reviewed to ensure other county departments implement program improvements and cost-saving recommendations of the County Board. This committee also includes employee relations, reclassification, compensation and conditions of employment of County personnel and officers. Members set policy for the Civil Service Commission and administer the county Employee Merit Award program.
  • Health and Human Needs
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the second Wednesday before the County Board Meeting
    Policies related to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Mental Health Division, Emergency Medical Services (paramedics), Family Care, and the Children's Court Center are all the responsibility of this Committee. It also reviews policies relating to the Office for Persons with Disabilities and monitors the implementation of the Wisconsin Works program (W-2).
  • Intergovernmental Relations
    Meets at the call of the Chair
    Proposed federal, state and local legislation affecting the county is reviewed by this Committee, which also makes recommendations determining the county's policy on these matters. On special occasions, members of the Committee appear before Congress, the State Legislature and governing bodies of other municipalities to support the County Board's policies.
  • Judiciary, Safety and General Services
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the second Thursday before the County Board Meeting
    Legal questions concerning lawsuits or claims by or against the county, claims for workers compensation, personal injuries and property damage are all considered by this Committee. Members set policy for County Funded State Court Services, Family Court Commissioners, Jury Commission, Register in Probate, Election Commission, County Clerk, Register of Deeds, Legal Resource Center, Sheriff, Medical Examiner, Safety Commission, District Attorney, House of Correction, Department of Child Support Enforcement, Corporation Counsel and Emergency Management.
  • Parks, Energy and Environment
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the second Tuesday before the County Board Meeting
    All matters concerning county parks and parkways are the responsibility of this Committee. Members set policy for the parks department, organized recreation, cultural activities, arts, the University Extension program, and Zoo park services. Members have jurisdiction over matters concerning the conservation of all uses of energy and make recommendations relating to conservation of air, water, energy and all other resources.
  • Transportation, Public Works and Transit
    Meets at 9 a.m. on the third Wednesday before the County Board Meeting
    The mission of the Department of Transportation, including the construction and maintenance of county highways, bridges, airports, and public structures are the responsibility of this Committee. Members discuss all matters pertaining to the policy of mass transit and the Milwaukee County Transit System, including fares, service routes and capital improvements. The Committee discusses all matters under its jurisdiction pertaining to railroads and public utilities in the county.
  • Committee of the Whole
    Some matters coming before the County Board have a significant policy impact or a unique set of circumstances which overlap specific committee jurisdiction. One example is the closing of a major county facility. On such occasions, the Committee of the Whole will meet at the call of the County Board Chairperson. All 18 supervisors are members of the Committee of the Whole.

Here's the thing to remember. For every one of those tasks, the county has hired people who really know what they are doing. For example, the county hires recreation workers to handle the organized recreation department. You probably couldn't find a single supervisor who could organize a dodgeball game.

The best thing about the proposal making its way in Madison, is that it gives voice to the people. We all get to vote, in a binding referendum, on whether the board should be smaller and whether supervisors should be paid like the part-time workers they are. I'm not taking any bets on how that vote will turn out.


PaulK | Jan. 11, 2013 at 2:28 p.m. (report)

What is included in the $6 billion budget? Does this include both programs and administration?

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TheyThink | Jan. 11, 2013 at 9:58 a.m. (report)

While I am a fan of reducing the county board as a general rule...I'm VERY concerned about handing so much new power over to Chris Abele (and by default Tom Barrett) who will undoubtedly reap the most benefit from a county board that's been completely castrated. I'm really surprised no one is talking about this unintended consequence. Too many have the blinders on of "I hate the County Board no matter what" and don't see this very real end result.

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AndrewJ | Jan. 11, 2013 at 8:41 a.m. (report)

Dave... I'm loving this 2013 version of you. You're 2-2 this year in articles I've read. You said it all, with the most important point being that it's a referendum that ends up in the voters hands. The Co. Board is easily the most bloated arm of government in the state. It's members see it as a spring board into larger political arenas, and nothing else. So we're essentially paying them 50+k a year to campaign and chase higher offices. @emills makes a great point, however. Would you have this opinion if Walker was still the Co. Exec? I get the feeling you'd call it a power grab and lambast Walker as some kind of dictator. Make no bones about the legislation, Abele has his hands in it, and it IS a power grab. In this case though, a necessary one.

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emills81 | Jan. 10, 2013 at 4:59 p.m. (report)

Dave, Good article. Would you have the same opinion on the Co. board going part time if Walker was still the County Exec.?

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