The following is an op-ed submitted by County Executive Chris Abele.
Being a leader means doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than when it comes to public budgeting.
A lot of people are counting on us to get this right, whether it’s the job seeker on the north side who needs the County’s UpLift MKE job training program, the business owner in Oak Creek who knows her employees need reliable transportation on our buses or the grandparents in Wauwatosa who take the little ones to see the sea lion show at the Zoo every spring.
Milwaukee County’s budget process is no small undertaking – the County’s $1 billion budget maintains critical services and infrastructure for one million County residents. This is a full 12-month process every year for our budget professionals and County leaders as they work to find the right combination of creative new revenue streams, expense reductions and cost-saving efficiencies that will lead to a responsible, balanced budget.
As my office engaged with the community over the summer to gather their input on the budget, I heard people say they wanted to see this kind of balanced approach between revenue increases and expense reductions. I agreed, which is why I proposed a balanced budget that included $30.8 million in new revenue and $30.4 million in total efficiencies and expense reductions – nearly an exact 50/50 split. That new revenue included the difficult, but necessary, decision to propose a $60 vehicle registration fee, the same level of funding I proposed last year. As I have warned for more than a year, and as independent fiscal analysts have confirmed repeatedly, the County cannot maintain our current levels of service without new revenue.
At the same time, I understand that any increase in fees can be difficult to absorb. That is why I am supporting Rep. David Bowen’s proposal that would give localities the flexibility to assess the wheel tax more equitably. Even before I first proposed a vehicle registration fee in last year’s County budget, I have been outspoken about making fees and taxes more progressive so that our most vulnerable residents are not disproportionately impacted.
I look forward to seeing this proposal gain more support in the legislature and around the state, as other localities are increasingly turning to the wheel tax to generate needed revenue. In Milwaukee County, it is clear that the progressive and responsible approach to balancing our budget is to sustainably increase revenue so that critical services are not at risk.
County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb has rejected this balanced proposal and instead is demanding $15 million in deep service cuts. Some of these cuts include, unfortunately, deep reductions for transit, the elimination of the successful UpLift MKE program that provides job training and placement in 53206, the closure of the Schulz Aquatic Center and Sea Lion show at the Zoo, the cancellation of important road improvements, cuts to public safety funding for the medical examiner, paramedic training, the district attorney, sheriff, and house of correction, and cuts to social service funding that supports our most vulnerable residents.
I am vehemently opposed to the deep service cuts that were demanded by the chairman, because they will hurt the most vulnerable among us, diminish quality of life for our residents, and hamstring the County’s ability to grow and succeed.