Jim Sullivan is proud of his career in public service – first in the Naval Reserve, then as a Wauwatosa alderperson and most recently as a State Senator representing the 5th district in Madison.
That sense of serving the public has led Sullivan to seek the vacant county executive seat in Milwaukee, where he plans to turn around years of mismanagement, dsyfunction and politicizing of the office.
Sullivan spoke with me last week, before the first county executive debate, and his message stayed on point during both presentations.
Q: Milwaukee County is facing a massive budget hole and fiscal crisis due to past decisions and current economic realities. What is your fiscal plan for Milwaukee County, including spending cuts and tax policy?
“The fiscal problems facing Milwaukee County are the result of fantasy budgeting by Scott Walker and neglect by all officials,” Sullivan said. “We need a more realistic budget, modeled like many of the municipal budgets adopted in communities around us. We are not longer in a situation were the budget can be used as a political messaging tool, as Walker used it.”
Instead, Sullivan would focus the county budget and fiscal policy on core services desired by residents or mandated by the state – mental health care, transit, parks and courts. Plus he would work towards long-term infrastructure planning, to eliminate the emergency expenditures that have occurred due to neglect of county-owned buildings and facilities.
Sullivan’s solution to one of those core services, transit, would be to work for the dedicated sales tax for transportation and parks approved by the voters in 2008.
“We are one of the last cities in the nation which uses property taxes to support transit. We need to change that.”
Q: Milwaukee County’s system of mental health care has been exposed for the weaknesses and mismanagement on a personal and policy level. What is your plan to care for the most vulnerable and mentally ill among us?
Sullivan plans to follow suggestion from the Public Policy Forum’s October 2010 report, “Transforming the Adult Mental Health Care Delivery System in Milwaukee County,” which calls for more community-based and recovery-oriented care.
This would include the development of multiple 16 bed units spread throughout the county – a community-based solution. By following this model, $1.5 million in Medicaid that have been withheld from the county previously, could be tapped for patients.
He is also not sold on the idea of privatization of mental health services.
“I must remind everyone that it is the county’s role to serve the most vulnerable citizens and the rush to privatization will negatively affect these folks in need,” he said. “Instead, we need to adopt the best practices, reduce site admits by making more use of preventative care and family care and add more case workers to keep people out of acute care situations.”
Q: There have been suggestions to disband county government or trim its reach. What is your opinion on the role of county government and do we need it or not?
“The county exists to provide an efficient level service, but the last 8 years, due to the rigid anti-government ideology we have seen (county government) driven into a wall,” Sullivan said. “We now have a self-fulfilling prophecy that it is broken. And it is broken due to the neglect by Walker.”
Sullivan doesn’t think spreading county services out the municipalities or new taxing districts is the answer. “Shouldn’t we have one responsible party for these services, instead of a variety? More taxing authorities and commissions sounds like more government.”
He responds to citizens who say county government should be disbanded with a simple “let’s make Milwaukee County work for the people.”
Q: Why should the citizens of Milwaukee vote for you and what are your qualifications to be the administrator of a $1.3 Billion enterprise?
Sullivan said his willingness to sit down and make the county work for the people and not be a candidate who will listen to only the business community, as the main reason he is the ideal candidate for the job.
“I have experience working with people from both sides of the aisle as a businessman, alderperson and state legislator. I’m from the community and believe in making the system work.”
Sullivan points to his work in Madison to toughen drunk driving laws and his assistance in the UWM Innovation Park development on the County Grounds as examples of working with and for the community. And in recognition of the importance of economic development in Southeastern Wisconsin to Milwaukee County’s success, Sullivan said he would make participation in M7, a regional development commission, a priority.
Q: You just lost your seat in Madison to Rep. Leah Vukmir by 4 points. Are you running because you are out of a job and how do you answer your critics and pundits on that point?
“No. I think it is a distraction the discussion about the previous race. I’m very happy with the race I ran and in a very Republican year to only lose by 4 points. In fact, I won the district in Milwaukee County.”
He admits he wasn’t eager to return to politics after his senate loss, “But there is a great need out there that I needed to answer. I won’t stand by and continue to watch Milwaukee County decay. That is why I am running.”
The five County Executive candidates – Sullivan, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, philanthropist Chris Abele, State Rep. Jeff Stone and Acting County Executive Lee Holloway – will take part in a debate sponsored by the Public Policy Forum on Friday, Feb. 4 at the Pfister Hotel. Details can be found here.
The spring primary will be held Feb. 15. The top two vote getters will move onto the spring general election on April 5.