Scott Walker has the name recognition and a record of spending cuts to land him on the top of the state GOP ticket this fall. But he still has a county to run. So I recently sat down with Walker to discuss what is happening in the county, knowing full well that what he is doing here foreshadows his plans for the state.
Walker scored political points by branding last week’s Zoo Interchange closure the “Barrett Bypass.” He admitted that neither he nor Mayor Tom Barrett have any say over freeway decisions, noting the freeways are under state control, but that didn’t stop him from reminding me (and voters) that he did contribute in the planning stages of the freeways as a member of the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Committee in 2003.
“I recommended building freeways to their full capacity. I battled with then-Mayor Norquist, who was not in favor of expanding lanes into Waukesha County to eliminate the funneling of traffic into Milwaukee. I found that unacceptable. That would kill commerce and have a devastating impact on the region.”
He said the DOT accepted his position to expand the freeways and reconstruct the Zoo Interchange immediately after the Marquette, but state politicians didn’t want to deal with the Milwaukee mayor and other opposition groups, choosing to work on I-94 south of Milwaukee. “Not that I was against that, I supported the North-South as well. I want all of them done.”
On transit, Walker said he supports MCTS and wants the public to know he has been on a bus. He disputes the idea that he is anti-bus and has raised fares to kill the system.
“I’d like to see more efficiency with the system, but the problem with adding routes in the more suburban areas of the county is skyrocketing costs,” he said, adding that taxpayers currently subsidize $2 of each ride in densely populated areas. Subsidizing bus routes in southern Milwaukee County would cost taxpayers $20 per rider.
Fare increases were in response to rising fuel costs, a decision Walker won’t apologize for. “I moved away from route reductions, since I feel giving riders a choice between rate increases versus losing a route to work, they would prefer the rate increase.”
Walker’s long term plan is to implement rapid bus transit, focusing buses where riders are. He opposes Barrett’s plan to use federal transit funds to develop a downtown streetcar. “That will benefit a 3-mile circle downtown for businessmen. Those aren’t the real users of the system.”
On job creation, Walker said his policy of improving county services and cutting costs has also helped bring jobs to the area, even as Barrett and Doyle take credit bringing Spanish companies Talgo and Ingeteam to Milwaukee.
He points to the county’s successful management of Mitchell Airport, which has seen 43 and 34 percent increases in passenger traffic during January and February and the addition of Republic and Southwest Airlines. “We have made Mitchell attractive to our market and to the Northern Illinois market. Plus, this has brought 1,000 jobs to the area.”
Walker is also a cheerleader for developing the Milwaukee County Grounds, forging a partnership between the county and city of Wauwatosa to guarantee city loans for Innovation Park. He also meets regularly with the leaders of the hospitals, Blood Center and Medical College to expand job opportunities and champions the development of UWM’s Engineering School on the grounds.
He doesn’t want to privatize or sell off everything owned by the county. “I won’t sell parkland, but I’m open to selling surplus land. The difference between me and the county board is to use county land sales for one-time only expenses, not for regular operating expenses.”
He won’t privatize public safety, meaning jail guards and sheriff deputies will remain county employees, but he wants citizens to understand that the county has privatized social services for years.
The common practice in 71 of 72 Wisconsin counties is for social services to be bid to private providers, such as Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, La Causa and others. Walker explained his role is to ensure those private contracts are monitored properly and are providing services for residents at a reasonable cost.
He is proud of the privatization of housekeeping and security services at county buildings and learned his lesson after county housekeepers were given their notices. When overflowing wastebaskets and dirty toilets occurred after housekeepers refused to work to their end dates, Walker arranged for Wackenhut Security to immediately take over when county guards received their pink slips. Since the beginning of the year, guards from across the country have manned the entrances of buildings and courtrooms, with Milwaukee based guards taking over next week.
“Everyone is pleased with the process. The Sheriff oversees the contractors and the court employees who were concerned with the security switch are pleased with the results,” Walker said.
When asked what he is looking to privatize next, Walker said he is open to just about anything as long as his cabinet can provide the numbers that will show a benefit. What is off the table? Parks. Those will remain under the control of the county, but Walker will continue to fight to use seasonal employees rather than full-time, year-round park employees.
“It’s frustrating since the people are not in the parks in February to have park workers on the payroll,” he said. “I would like to follow other award-winning parks, where they use outside contractors for painting, mowing and maintenance.”
While I couldn’t ask specific questions about his gubernatorial aspirations, it was obvious from Walker’s answers that he looks forward to possibly taking his management ideas statewide.