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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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What kind of city have we built if we have to keep our residents walled in like East Berlin?
What kind of city have we built if we have to keep our residents walled in like East Berlin?

Mr. Barrett, tear down this wall!

I love Milwaukee. As a kid living in rural communities, I couldn’t wait to one day move to the big city. Summer festivals, Brewers games and Lake Michigan seemed to call my name at an early age. After graduating from college, there was little doubt where I would end up starting a life.

That being said, the realities of living in the big city drew a stark comparison to the expectations I had built up in my own mind. In truth, there are many self-induced reasons that Milwaukee is currently struggling to adapt to a changing political, social and employment landscape. As a result, a quality neighborhood in Milwaukee is becoming elusive. This is why you have select areas of the city with high concentrations of city employees such as firemen and police officers.

The recent proposed residency rule changes have caused much hand wringing among Milwaukee leaders. It’s feared that chaos will ensue by allowing certain government workers to live outside of the City of Milwaukee. The theory is that an exodus of city residents will head for the suburbs and leave Milwaukee in the dust, if given the chance.

In reality, this theory has played out for decades and already has had severe fiscal repercussions. If you consider the large amount of future committed expenditures, it points to a bleak prospect of improvement to the city’s finances.

While opponents passionately argue about the consequences, they fail to look at the problem. What kind of city have we built if we have to keep our residents walled in like East Berlin?

Better yet, why would people want to leave Milwaukee at the first opportunity?

Could it be the 17-minute average response time when dialing 911? Could it be the double-digit unemployment? Could it be the failing schools? Could it be the high crime in increasingly unsafe neighborhoods? Could it be high property taxes?

The answer is yes, to all of those questions. In addition, the surrounding communities offer better neighborhoods, safer streets, better schools and better jobs.

Over decades, the economic and social policies of Milwaukee’s one party government have created problems that come without easy solutions. Of course, liberals will instinctively act to raise taxes to repair these issues. But with fewer jobs, the tax base is already being burdened to a great extent. Raising taxes should be the last thing done if Milwaukee is looking to attract workers and businesses, or retain the ones that are still here.

These are hard choices. When you make sound long-term financial decisions, people will want to fire you as a politician. When you spend money and make the problem worse, you’re rewarded by earning the political clout of special interest groups. These groups are interested in their own cause and not in solving community problems.

It isn’t the government’s job to restrict where its workers can live. It’s the government’s job to create a favorable environment that encourages business and population growth. What can be done to encourage growth and immigration, as opposed to driving taxpayers away? How about these five ideas?

  1. Hire more police officers and improving 911 response times. Residents need to feel safe in their neighborhood and in their homes.
  2. Lowering taxes is vital to encourage growth and bring in new residents and businesses.
  3. Investing in massive amounts of worker training programs. Milwaukee has a large deficiency of skilled workers and plenty of open jobs to fill. Getting people qualified for available jobs is the best long term strategy to combat chronic high unemployment.
  4. The city should quit dumping poop into the lake. Milwaukee could easily leverage their access to clean water to other communities to help financially subsidize numerous community improvement projects. The key words being sale-able "clean water."
  5. Enact the Act 10 legislation and use the tools that the governor enabled to help pay for these things.

The problems aren’t because of a lack of funding, but rather how the money is spent. Continuing to get increased tax revenue, while making the existing problems worse, is why much of Wisconsin is increasingly frustrated with Milwaukee’s big city politics. What exacerbates this frustration is that local officials are not held to any type of accountability. In short, there are few, if any, changes in the political ideology that created and fostered the never ending cycle of dependency, poverty, crime and despair.

Predictably, long-term problem delayer Mayor Norquist chimed in by saying that Republicans were to blame for the policies he helped invent, pass and enforce. He said, "Wisconsin needs Milwaukee more than Milwaukee needs Wisconsin. Without Milwaukee, Wisconsin is basically Iowa."

As someone that has lived in many areas of the state, I bet a clear majority of people outside of Southeast Wisconsin and Dane County would say that’s a good thing. Many of them would likely agree that Mayor Norquist was part of the political problems that led to Milwaukee’s decline and not part of the solution.

If Milwaukee doesn’t want to end up exactly like Detroit, then it had better start electing people that can make tough choices. This means not electing the same type of people from the same political party that has created the problems. Will Milwaukee have the wisdom to change political ideologies and make the smart long-term financial decisions necessary to remain financially solvent?

Talkbacks

fetlarpo | May 20, 2013 at 12:10 p.m. (report)

Great article. A commenter wrote about the hallowing of Milwaukee. Do you really think these small business wanted to leave? My father worked in printing a staunch union guy. The owners who took on all the risk of the business, stated to him that the business was losing money and his union would have to make some concessions or lose their jobs. My father nor his union risked no money in the business. His union told the owner to screw himself, and the print shop closed. Pabst, Briggs and Stratton, Hostess, World color(print shop) in New Berlin, same story. Private unions tell owners to buzz off and the business dies or is forced to go overseas. The Leftists though can soak in the sun knowing that government will not go away, in fact they enjoy doling out food stamps, and telling you where you can smoke, or telling you can't have that soda. You will have to put up with MPS or pot holes and you will pay for Trolleys, and bankrupt solar companies.

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AndrewJ | May 20, 2013 at 8:23 a.m. (report)

36464 Good article, John.

Milwaukee has been electing Liberal (in some cases actual Socialist) Mayors for 105 years. Literally since 1908. As John alluded to, it's been a one-party system in the city and we can all see the fruit it bears. Now it's gotten to the point where they are fighting politically to force people to live there. The Governor said it best: "If you want people to live in your city, build a better city." It's that simple. If the Mayor had any sense about him, he'd take a few trips to similar sized cities around the country that are thriving. Find out what is working for them. How do they handle transit? Taxes? Development? Learn from the success of others and implement it here. Perhaps if he at all feared losing his job, he'd do those types of things instead of incessantly trying to rip up all of downtown and force a streetcar down our throats.

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wauwatosa | May 18, 2013 at 7:18 a.m. (report)

John-well written article but one that misses the mark. You want to see political ideology behind the percieved decline of Milw. while to me the root of the problem is the massive sucking sound of de-industrialization that has been going on for nearly 40 yrs. Milw. has a large class of people who were unable to adapt to the earthquake of economic change happening around them. Interestingly its not just the city, its West Allis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee etc. Are all cities with increasing poverty rates because the family supporting jobs are fewer and fewer.
Yes prop. taxes are important but heck mine in Tosa went up nearly $200 last year even with Walker's tools.
To me the question remains of how are we going to educate a massive underclass of people not only in Milw. but in this state and set the conditions for an entrepreneurship society? Walker has made a few moves in the right direction but to me is a bit myopic when implementing his tunnel vision-Norquist was spot on-Wisconsin (and the burbs!) need Milw. to be the econ. engine that drives the states economy. Making war on the city (true or not) is not leadership, its cheap shot politics and ill serves everyone.
Keep up the good work, I enjoy your articles and I look forward to reading more in the coming months.

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PlayerGotGame | May 17, 2013 at 5:57 p.m. (report)

I'm a staunch Democrat, but even I am against the residency rule. If Milwaukee can't convince city workers to stay based upon the merits of the community, then the city doesn't deserve the property tax dollars from those people and the positive presence of their primary residence.

Property taxes should be cut in half. Crime should be cut in half. The roads need work. MPS needs improvement. The police department needs more officers.

What's the simple solution? Fewer people who don't contribute. Milwaukee needs to literally pay people to leave and never come back.

I'm serious. Milwaukee should pay people to get out of Milwaukee--and out of Wisconsin. Chicago wouldn't even notice if the 200,000 worthless Milwaukeans moved there. We should enable and encourage them to do so. It would raise the collective appeal of both cities.

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