By LaKeshia N. Myers
As we embark on a new legislative session, there have already been stern indications that things will be difficult for Milwaukee—city and county—in the next state budget. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has stated that he believes the city and county must do more before the idea of a sales tax would be entertained. This was precisely the answer I expected from Representative Vos, and precisely the level of indifference that has gotten us to this point.
Blame is to be shared on both sides of this mess—the truth of the matter is, neither the City of Milwaukee nor Milwaukee County should’ve ever been allowed to create its own retirement systems. Both are costly and are the reasons we near bankruptcy. Republican leadership is also partly to blame for Milwaukee’s negative Return on Investment (ROI). There is no logical or mathematical reason that Milwaukee receives less than fifty cents on the dollar in return for participation in the shared revenue plan. That math just isn’t “mathing.”
So, what do we do now? Well, that’s left to Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Supervisor David Crowley. But I tell you what I would do:
1. File bankruptcy for the City of Milwaukee. Both the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County should file for chapter 9 bankruptcy. This chapter of the Bankruptcy Code provides for reorganization of municipalities, which includes cities and towns, as well as villages, counties, taxing districts, municipal utilities, and school districts. Filing bankruptcy would allow both the city and county time to develop a real plan to move forward. It would also signal to the state legislature that the need for help is real, and immediate. There is precedent for this, as cities like Stockton, California, and Detroit, Michigan, and Jefferson County, Alabama, have used bankruptcy to rebound and recover their economies.
2. Immediately dissolve the city and county pension systems, rolling all employees into the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS). Any employees that could not be immediately transferred would be dealt with via payouts or reinvestment options with WRS.
3. Renegotiate a realistic contract with the Milwaukee Police Association. We already know police pensions eat up the majority of the city budget. Its time for reality. If MPA doesn’t choose to cooperate, the city should look at hiring police officers as independent contractors, only recognizing officers who are members of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (an organization who often seeks more equity in contract negotiations) or temporarily dissolving the city police department as a whole and working with the county to provide services. These are just ideas, but I am certain a realistic working contract could be agreed to.
4. Shared services. This is a must. Milwaukee County (with the state’s help) must step in to share services. Milwaukee is the largest municipality and feeds the industry in surrounding areas. If its shared services that the state wants to see, I’m all for it. The first shared service needs to be transportation. Milwaukee County transit system needs to include Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, and Racine Counties. We must have adequate transportation for people to travel to work and entertainment. This will be an important step in moving forward and attracting and retaining talent to the state. A real transit investment is not just busses, but also light rail. The truth is, we will have to look at sharing libraries and health departments as well.
What is evident is that there is a problem. What is less evident are solutions. It seems as though Robin Vos, David Crowley, and Cavalier Johnson have been in a wildly exciting dance of “hurry up and wait” all summer. Well, time’s up. January 3rd is quickly approaching and somebody needs to make the first move. The people of Milwaukee anxiously await a reprieve and some solid plans for the future. Will it be difficult, yes. Can we get through it, yes. We just need folks to show up and have city of Milwaukee’s best interest in mind, and that means having Wisconsin’s best interest in mind. Because without Milwaukee, there is no Wisconsin