Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele presented his first budget to the full board Thursday morning. He characterized it as “honest” and not including any revenues from potential land sales or overly optimistic projections about earning or expenses. He freezes the tax levey at the 2011 level and cuts spending by 5.6 percent.
While he didn’t go into every detail, Abele focused on four major budget areas in county government.
To see the detailed narrative of the Abele budget proposal, click here.
Facing a $15 million deficit to maintain transit services, Abele said his budget would maintain all of the current levels of service without a general fare increase.
His plan hinges on the receipt of $10 million in federal grants that were earmarked to the cancelledSoutheast Regional Transit Authority. The $15 million budgeted to SETRA for the KRM train will be divided among transit services in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine counties.
Abele will use those funds to restore freeway flyers, festival shuttles and other eliminated routes proposed by the Milwaukee County Transit System in their budget submission. He would also establish an express route between Bayshore and the airport.
However, he reminded supervisors that if the SERTA money is not received, drastic cuts will have to be made.
Supervisor Jason Haas said the restoration of transit is important to the southern suburbs because it provides access to thousands of jobs in Greenfield and Franklin. He remains cautiously optimistic that Abele and the board leadership can convince the state to direct the RTA funds to the county.
Supervisor Patricia Jursik, who announced two weeks ago that transit would be her priority, was pleased with Abele’s plan.
“I am happy with the lobbying and public hearings that were held,” she said. “I really think the County Executive got the message that transit access is very important to all of the county’s residents, especially those in the Southeast suburbs.”
Paratransit riders faced a service at the federal minimum levels of service, with stops extending only ¼ mile from regular bus stops. Abele made it a priority to continue border to border Paratransit services within the county.
This was the only area that Abele spoke of increasing revenue – a fare increase for Paratransit riders from $3.25 to $4.50 for a one-way ride.
“Linking residents to education and jobs is critical to our growing economy,” Abele said. “While we were unsuccessful in stopping the 10 percent cut (in state funding), I am committed to continuing the fight to restore transit funding in the future. We all understand that transit is the key to economic growth and vital to the success of our region.”
Mental Health and EMS services
Abele campaigned on converting the county’s delivery of mental and behavioral health services from an institutional setting at the County Grounds to smaller, community based centers. He plans to move ahead with the development of two North Side Crisis Resource Centers and an 8-bed crisis respite facility, funded with the $3 million that had been previously budgeted to the county’s EMS system.
He said the EMS subsidy was “outdated” and that its use toward mental health services would be an “investment in building community capacity” for these patients.
The idea of cutting funding to municipal paramedic services has not been well received by suburban fire chiefs or leaders. Greenfield and Wauwatosa will lose $200,000 each and the North Shore Fire Department will lose up to $362,000. NSFD Chief Robert Whitaker said that type of cut would eliminate one person per shift and increase response times.
Abele said the move to cut the subsidy was a tough decision that wasn’t done lightly, but the idea of a $55 million budget deficit and $108 million debt service payment for 2012 isn’t something to be approached lightly either.
“I think they should all be excited at the fact that for the first time we have a payment in the budget to start paying down that debt,” Abele said following his speech. “And if we don’t make a change in the way we budget, there will be more drastic cuts in the future. Remember, the $108 million in the budget is for debt service which could be going to EMS and a lot of other things.”
Supervisor Mark Borkowski, representing parts of Milwaukee, Greenfield and Franklin, was openly against the shift of EMS funds.
“It is very disappointing that this budget starts the decimation of the County’s nationally ranked paramedic service,” he said. “When there is an outcry for greater cooperation among governmental units, and this paramedic program is a shining example of unity, we are going in the opposite direction. Pretty unbelievable.”
Another place Abele looked for savings is the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department. While his 2012 budget proposal still devotes 49 percent of spending to public safety, he said it’s time for the department that has seen a 62 percent funding increase since 2001 to tighten its belt.
The department will continue to manage the jail and House of Corrections, patrol the freeways and parks, provide court security and service legal papers. But Able expects the Sheriff to find and implement efficiencies in the department.
In a supplementary handout, Abele noted that all 19 county municipalities provide police coverage. Those police departments are augmented by two university departments and finally the Sheriff’s Department. He urged the Sheriff to reduce duplication and remove itself from law enforcement duties other than traffic citations.
“Everything we propose is based on facts, data, research and a lot of consultation with local law enforcement. In terms of public safety, in 2009 the Sheriff’s Department reported only a single digit number of arrests. That is not what they do,” Abele said.
“Instead, I look forward to a reasoned and intelligent discussion on the changes I have proposed to the budget for the office of the sheriff… not politics, hyperbole and melodrama.”
Sheriff David Clarke said Abele’s proposal shows a “low priority for public safety” and that he does not take orders or directives from the County Executive.
“Case law is very clear that the sheriff alone decides how to carry out his duty and responsibility,” Clarke said in a press release. “His budget is an obvious attempt to micromanage my office. I am independently elected by the voters of Milwaukee County. If he wants to be in charge of my office, he’s going to have to run for sheriff in 2014.”
County Supervisor Joe Rice, whose northeast suburban district was eliminated with the acceptance of the 2010 redistricting of the county supervisory map following Abele’s speech, is not convinced by cuts to EMS or public safety.
“It will be up to the County executive to convince citizens that his cuts to vital public safety areas in paramedic and law enforcement service will not have a detrimental impact on vital services now serving as a model of intergovernmental cooperation.”
The Public Policy Forum released a study in August suggesting the county increase the tax levy by 1.8 percent and implement a $10 county-wide vehicle tax to raise $10.1 million. However, Abele stuck to his guns and refused to increase the property tax level.
Abele said he had two reasons from his no taxes pledge.
“First, Milwaukee County residents are taxed enough,” he said. He added that high property taxes, growing debt and the structural deficit are an indication of a lack of discipline and willingness to make difficult choices.
“Raising taxes just allows us to defer to another year and that is something I am not willing to do.”
Instead of taxes, Abele’s budget fills the $55 million hole with $20 million in savings from a redesign of the employee health care plan and increased contributions and $5.5 million in savings from a 4.7 percent pension contribution. These are in addition to the savings from efficiencies in the Sheriff’s Department.
Wauwatosa/West Allis Supervisor Jim “Luigi” Schmitt said the devil is in the details and he is waiting until he sees the specifics before deeming Abele’s proposal a success.
“As a member of the Finance and Audit Committee, I will take a close look to see where the county Executive cut to fill the budget gap. In the coming days and weeks, I will review the data presented as well as analysis from County Board staff, in making decisions for next year’s budget on behalf of my constituents.”