With less than two weeks before the primary election, the candidates for Milwaukee County Executive gathered for a forum held Friday at the Pfister Hotel. Sponsored by the Public Policy Forum and area business, forum moderator Rob Henken focused on parks, transit, public safety and mental health in his question selection, based on an election brief provided by the PPF.
All five candidates, Chris Abele, Ieshuh Griffin, Lee Holloway, Jeff Stone and Jim Sullivan opened the forum saying they were running to make Milwaukee County a better place for their families and citizens to live. But after that one point of agreement, the panel went off in different directions on how to accomplish that goal.
Opening with the privatization of government to save costs there were varying opinions. Stone deferred the question, saying politicians would rather discuss the easy issues the public understands than weightier matters such as wages and benefits for public employees. Griffin said privatization attempts have led to corruption and criminal activity within the courthouse and that the focus of her administration would be to review all departments within the county and find all the unlawful activities.
Holloway immediately announced he had a memorandum of understanding between the county and Milwaukee Public Schools to combine health care plans to increase the pool and negotiate lower costs of insurance. Sullivan said the privatization efforts within the county are a shining example of the failure of leadership in the county to address the decay of services.
And Abele went to his tried and true message – cooperate and consolidate.
“These issues face everyone; cities, schools, non-elected taxable districts, the county,” Abele said. “For example, MPS has parks it takes care of. The county has an award-winning parks service. Why not have the county take care of all the parks? We have to move toward being partners, not competitors, and care that thing are getting done effectively.”
Henken asked how budget priorities should be set for the county – by demands for service, such as parks and transit, or by state mandates of mental health care, courts and public safety?
Holloway agreed that certain services must be provided due to state mandate and would work to find ways to leverage federal and state dollars to fund them, but added that he is in favor of increasing the local sales tax to be dedicated to transit and parks. Griffin also supported the dedicated sales tax, but claimed mandated services such as the courts are currently over-funded, not under-funded, which is leading to illegalities and discrimination in sentencing. She said dipping into the county’s general fund for courts needs to be stopped.
Sullivan blamed the county board and previous executive for “fantasy budgeting” which has caused this guns or butter debate.
“We need to provide for them all,” he said. “We need to budget from the ground up and focus on the core functions of the county – public safety and courts, mental health, parks and transit. Overall, we need to be honest about the costs.”
Abele fell back on his find duplication and develop cooperative efforts that will provide efficiencies and cost reductions campaign message, not addressing the specific question.
And Stone said the question focused on a false choice – do you raise taxes or cut services? He said the underlying problem causing the choice between mandates and taxpayer wants is the cost of employee wages and benefits.
“I did not support the tax for transit, but we need to look at the labor costs at MCTS to find savings and save the program,” Stone said.
Staying with non-mandated services, Henken asked the candidates how they would balance the huge infrastructure maintenance costs and needs of the parks and public facilities with the county borrowing cap for capital projects.
Griffin said cuts will not solve the problem, instead focusing on controlling the costs. The current county borrowing cap of $30 million is not enough to cover the needed repairs to county facilities, according to Griffin, adding that it is wasteful to let the repairs go uncompleted. So her answer was to look at every expenditure and squeeze the pennies to pay for needed repairs.
Abele promised he would stop the current practice of lowering the County Park Department’s operating budget by the amount of dollars it brings in through earned revenue.
“We’ve been punishing the values that we should be encouraging,” he said.
Instead, Abele would maintain the parks operating budget and allow them to keep earned revenue to cover maintenance costs.
Sullivan didn’t say what he would do to balance the needs for maintenance and the lack of dollars available for it, but he did say what he would not do – he will not allow for new taxing districts or entities to be created to care for the parks, transit or other county services.
“We used to have that,” he said, referring to the former practice of municipalities have park districts and the current SERTA and sewerage district. “That led to civil servants who weren’t responsible to the taxpayers. We need to have elected officials how can take responsibility.”
Holloway completely avoided he question, instead telling the audience that he was instrumental in investing pension fund dollars to help save on retirement costs, while Stone said the question only dealt with 8 percent of the county’s budget and he wanted to focus on the main problem – employee wages and benefits.
But Henken would not move off the parks. He inquired if any of the candidates would consider closing parks and pools or selling off county land.
Holloway noted that he has already been involved in selling off county parkland to benefit development and increase the tax base – Innovation Park on the former county grounds in Wauwatosa and the future UWM Research Park.
“I will sell land if we need to,” he said.
Stone would look at the current utilization of county lands and buildings before making any decisions, but he did recommend one building that could go immediately – the county’s City Campus on 27th and Wells. Stone added that he would work to use funds obtained from land or building sales to develop and endowment for the parks.
Sullivan was adamant that he would not sell parkland, calling the county parks “our birthright.” He added that the parks provide essential positive recreational outlets throughout the county and an alternative to gang membership and teen pregnancy.
Abele asked for a distinction between parks and county buildings, saying a use analysis is needed, adding the parks have shown their value by bringing earned revenue into the county. Griffin said the parks should not be downsized, but the mismanagement of county funds should be downsized and grants and user fees should be tapped to maintain the system.
As for mental health, Holloway, Sullivan and Abele agreed on the PPF-sponsored report recommendations to move toward more community care facilities and a smaller long-term hospital to tap into millions of federal dollars the county has left on the table with the current non-compliant system. Abele added that patients have to be the number one focus of any reform that is done, along with seeking input from nurses as to the needs of the care.
Griffin doesn’t want to build new facilities, but make better use of the current hospital which is being underused. She wants the county to follow the state statutes to provide for the well-being of the people and roots out the mistreatment that patients are enduring.
“We don’t need to rebuild, we just need to reinvest,” she said.
Stone said he would seek private investment into the county’s mental health plan, finding outside providers who would take over the care of patients and leverage federal dollars for the costs.
Overall there seems to be a clear choice between the candidates – Holloway has a plan that he is already implementing focused on cooperation. Abele is not far apart on the issues from the current board chairman, but he doesn’t have the legal problems facing Holloway. Sullivan wants to work within the system to correct the problems and Griffin wants to find the problems and illegal operations and fix them. Finally, Stone parrots the conservative no-tax, privatization line of the former executive.
Now it is up to you to decide who moves on to the general election in April.
The spring primary will be held Feb. 15. The top two vote-getters will move on to the spring general election on April 5.
A profile on Lee Holloway will run on ThirdCoast Digest.com on Monday, Feb. 7. Jeff Stone’s profile will run on Feb. 14. To read profile on the other candidates, please click on their names in the opening sentences of this story.