By Karen Stokes
Milwaukee County is facing an alarming financial crisis, as revealed by its recent five-year financial forecast. The projected budget shortfall is even greater than previously anticipated, raising concerns about how this problem can be resolved without significant changes at the state level.
Several factors have contributed to the substantial financial challenge facing Milwaukee County.
“One thing we can definitely point to as a driving factor relating to our pension costs and when we think about our pension cost, about a third of our local tax levy right now goes to pay towards our pension and as the pension costs continues to grow, it literally squeezed out our ability to pay for other services,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.
Another significant factor is the limitation on property tax increases. Presently, Milwaukee County is only permitted to raise property taxes by one percent. However, the county’s costs are growing at a rate of approximately two and a half percent, resulting in a structural deficit. This limitation hampers the county’s ability to invest in crucial services, making it challenging to address the needs of the community effectively.
To overcome this financial crisis, Milwaukee County must explore potential solutions and alternatives.
“We’ve looked at different models, we’ve talked about going to the state and asking for a state shared revenue increase to help us fix our gap but we would need to see about a 600 percent increase in order to do that,” the County Executive said. “No matter who is in office whether democrats or republicans, independents or whatever, we don’t know if it would be palatable to anyone. We could look at the vehicle registration fee, that’s one of the few tools that we have, currently the county’s portion is $30 but even if we increase that, that still wouldn’t provide enough money to fill the gap and at the same time the vehicle registration fee we would have to earmark many of those dollars to be focused toward transit or transportation like projects, or raising fees but we would have to raise the fees at an exorbitant amount.
“The only other way without the partnership with the State of Wisconsin we would literally have to cut many different programs and services that so many folks rely on and this wouldn’t be just trimming a little off here, trimming a little off there this would really put us in the position that we would have to trim or cut off some of our major programs and services that we provide,” he said.
There are services that would face deep cuts if the fiscal fix is not implemented.
“There are differences in what we as counties are mandated to do and what are non mandated programs. Thinking about mandated programs, that includes public safety and jail and we cannot keep up with the cost to provide those mandated services,” Crowley said. “With the non mandated services the ones that contribute to the quality of life for residents who live here or come here to visit and even our businesses. When you think about public parks, our Crown Jewels of Milwaukee County, those would be one of the things that we would have to look to cut. When we think about emergency or senior services some of the things we do in public safety, disability and youth services, those are some of the things that would be on the chopping block but also when we think about our Milwaukee County Transit System that some of our most vulnerable community members rely on, that is also on the chopping block. These are real impacts on community members and we want to avoid that.”
Currently, the state Senate is reviewing the bill after the Assembly Republicans passed their version last week. The upcoming first hearing in the state senate, scheduled for May 23, presents an opportunity to engage with both sides of the aisle, as well as the governor’s office, to discuss the contents of the bill. It is crucial to emphasize that funding is not only needed for Milwaukee County but also for the entire state of Wisconsin, including the shared revenue bill. Ideally, progress should be made before the end of June to allow sufficient time for budget planning and charting a way forward.
Crowley urges individuals to pay attention to the situation and support investments in the community. Due to previous disinvestments caused by insufficient funds, it is vital to encourage investments in important programs. Individuals are encouraged to visit the moveforwardmke.com website to learn more about ongoing efforts, the coalition involved, and the significance of collaboration in advancing the state as a whole.