By Karen Stokes
The City of Milwaukee held the 2020 Preliminary Budget Hearing on Thursday, Aug.15 at the Zeidler Municipal Building. The purpose of the public meeting was to discuss the approximately $1.3 billion 2020 City of Milwaukee budget.
Mayor Tom Barrett, Finance and Personnel Committee chair Alderwoman Milele Coggs and budget director Dennis Yaccarino shared information regarding the budget planning process, the challenges and the needs of the community.
“It’s the opening day of the 2020 budget season and we are permitted to have a public hearing to talk about the budget,” Barrett said. “This is an opportunity to explain to the public, the biggest challenges I face all year.”
Barrett highlighted the challenges facing the city from shared revenue from the state, police and fire pension contributions and limits on the city’s ability to raise local revenue. The two largest sources of money are property taxes and shared revenue dollars from Madison. In the past 15 years money raised from property taxes went up but the amount of money received from the State of Wisconsin went down.
“Everyone who leaves here tonight I want to understand that the amount of money we receive from the State of Wisconsin through shared revenue is lower now than in 2004,” Barrett said.
The state government controls growth in property taxes, shared revenue and city charges for service.
“There’s a struggle we have in the budget where the remedies do not match up with the expenditures,” said Yaccarino. “There are controls on property state levy so it cannot be raised where we want.”
The bulk of the dollars, 84 percent of the 2019 General Fund Budget goes to three departments: The Police Department at 47.2 percent, Department of Public Works at 19.2 percent and the Fire Department at 17.7 percent. The remaining departments including Administrative at 7.9 percent, Library at 3.6 percent, Neighborhoods at 3.1 percent, Health at 2.3 percent and other at 2.3 percent, spent less in 2019 than in 2009.
The mayor warns that pensions will soon become a time bomb. Pension contributions are expected to increase from $70 million in 2020 to $160 million in 2023. Police and Fire Department pensions are 80 percent of annual pension cost. The projected 2023 pension cost is over half of the 2019 Adopted property tax levy.
“The 800 pound gorilla in the room is that I didn’t have that payment for the first five years I was mayor, that number was zero,” Barrett said. “Beginning in 2009, was the first time we had to pay into the employee pension.”
“The only possible way that this could change is through negotiations, through an arbitrator or to change state law,” Barrett said.
“If one of these three things don’t happen, we are going to be required to make a payment of $160 million in 2023 and then we will see dramatic cuts everywhere,” Barrett said.
The 2020 Proposed Budget will include: Effective police presence, Fire and Police Commission monitoring in accordance with the ACLU settlement, replacement of the Police and Fire dispatch system, maintain existing fire houses, maintain existing library branches and hours, increasing and updating DPW snow removal fleet and continued investment in housing and neighborhoods.
What is not property tax funded and is not in the 2020 budget is: DNC 2020 expenses which will be reimbursed by federal grants, the Hop streetcar which is paid through federal grants and downtown tax increments and police officer wages for Brewers and Fiserv Forum events which are reimbursed by the Brewers and the Bucks.
Members of the public and representatives from community groups including Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) and AFSCME addressed their concerns with the budget during the Q and A session of the meeting. A myriad of concerns were raised from access to healthy food, infrastructure and the amount of money allocated to the police department and housing.
A homeless woman said she’s given up on her city representatives because she’s been told that there was no funding for housing. She believes the investment needs to be put back into the community.
“We have to use the money that we have right now to invest in our people in our community,” said Devin Anderson, Lead Organizer African American Roundtable.
The mayor will deliver the budget in September to the Common Council. The council reviews the budget for five or six weeks and following it will be two additional public hearings. After consideration of public input and priorities, Common Council will make changes and adopt the budget.
“Our goal is to produce a product by early November,” said Barrett.