Friday, February 27, 2009

The City/County of Milwaukee

Almost a year ago, Sheldon Lubar created quite the momentary stir up when he pointed out that Milwaukee County government is dysfunctional and that it might be the best thing to break it up. His plan included giving certain things, like the House of Correction and the courts over to the state, creating separate authorities for things like the parks and transit, and to turn over the other things to the individual cities.

That idea was quite a hit with local conservatives, who naturally hate all things government, especially county government. The editorial board was so enamored with the idea that it wrote not just one, but two, editorials touting the idea.

Recently, Rob Henken, at the blogsite Milwaukee Talkie, again brought up the conversation about consolidation. This in turn, promoted the editorial board again to go chirping about it.

And there are many examples of areas with larger populations were they have successfully created and operated one of the hybrid county/city communities.

I admit that there is something intuitively appealing about the thought of consolidating local governments, especially given the financial straits that the country, the state and the region are in at the moment. Heck, even Lena Taylor proposed a scaled down version of that last year during the County Executive races. She wanted to combine forces with the cities and the school boards within the County to share resources. Instead of consolidation, she called it collaboration.
Ironically, MJS thought so little of the idea at that time that they didn't even mention it once.

But no matter how attractive the idea of consolidating local governments or just the simple dismantling of the county government, don't expect it to happen any time soon. There are simply too many barriers to be overcome before it could happen. These barriers include legal, logistical, political and socioeconomic obstacles.


The first obstacle is just the legal problems. Wisconsin State Statute 59.17(1)(a) requires that in any county with a population of over 500,000 people, a county executive must be elected every four years. Likewise, State Statute 59.10(2) requires any county over 500,000 to have a County Board.

In other words, the entire Chapter 59 would have to be rewritten if the desire was to dissolve the County government. As the law is written now (if I am indeed reading it correctly), state law requires Milwaukee County to have a county government.

This leaves only the consolidation of Milwaukee County with all of the city governments, which presents a whole new list of problems.


Since the County cannot be dismantled per se, the other option would be to have it absorb all of the other services from the various cities within its boundaries. This would include the fire departments, the police departments, the health departments, departments of public works and the public schools.

The county would not be able to merge with the City of Milwaukee since it provides various county wide services that the individual cities depend on, including social services, the Sheriff's Office, Corrections, EMS coordination, support of the libraries, etc. To leave the various suburbs out of the merger would put the onus of providing all of these services themselves, and they just won't be able to afford that.

Because many of the cities have different municipal codes, all of these things would have to be redone into one comprehensive system. For example, what may be legal in West Allis may not be in Greenfield. Either some kind of compromise will have to be worked out in the resulting consolidated body, or the new ruling body would most likely have to create its own rules and policies for all of these separate departments. This will lead to a lot of confusion for a long time as people are now unable to do what they had always been able to do previously or they will forget that they could legally do something that had been previously banned.

Now multiply that by all of the different functions, like the police, the schools, the health agencies, etc. and you start to see how enormous that job would be and how much time it would take to hammer these things out.


It is fairly easy to predict that if there were to be any kind of consolidation between the various local bodies of government, a lot of people will be losing their jobs. Not necessarily the front line workers, as that there will always be the need for police, paramedics, firefighters, teachers, and yes, social workers.

But there will not be the need for umpteen police chiefs, fire chiefs, school superintendents, etc. The mayors and the common councils would also end up being dissolved. That is a lot of people that had grown used to being the big fish in their little ponds, and they will resist any effort to take away the power and control that they currently hold.

It would be interesting to see how the elections played out, if they were to happen today. For example, I think the new County Executive would end up being Tom Barrett. Scott Walker in his last three elections enjoyed a lot of support from the suburbs, but very little in the City of Milwaukee. If there were to be an election, and presuming that all of the mayors and Walker were going to run, Walker would lose a great deal of his support as people would cast their votes for their local leaders, who they would tend to have a greater rapport and bonding with. Meanwhile, the people of the City of Milwaukee have shown overwhelming support for Tom Barrett, which could help propel him into a large victory as the suburban support for Walker would disintegrate and the suburbs just aren't large enough by themselves to muscle the Milwaukee voters.


There is no denying that Milwaukee County is one of the most segregated communities in the entire nation. It is segregated both by race and by economic status.

Most of the minorities are found on the near north and south sides, while many of the suburbs remain mostly white. Likewise, you have the most poor people living in the inner city areas, and the most affluent people living in areas like Glendale, Bayside, Greendale and Franklin.

While there are many, many decent people living in the suburbs of all races and socioeconomic status living in the burbs, there will be a great deal of resistance when they realize that they will have to share their resources with their poorer neighbors. There will be a lot of resistance from the people in the suburbs to go along with any kind of consolidation plan when they realize that his might mean that their taxes might go up, or that they might not be able to continue with the level of service that they currently enjoy.

To see what I mean, look at how some people react to the thought of a nationalize health care system. Even though it would probably save them money in the long run, they are resistant to the idea, fearful that they will end up paying more for people that they deem not to be worth it.

Even now, there are several people in the blogosphere and on talk radio that do nothing but criticize and even dehumanize anyone that might be receiving economic aid, health care aid, etc. The recipients of these types of services are called moochers, lazy, or even worse by the more affluent, just for the crime of being poor (which is not a crime, by the way). These same people would really start squawking if they also had to help pay for all the services that the poor people receive, either directly or indirectly.

To summarize, regardless of how wonderful and economically sound the thought of merging all of the communities within Milwaukee County might appear to be, there are just too many different obstacles, each one daunting in its own right, to be overcome before anything like this is seriously contemplated.


  1. Clark County in Vegas kind of acts like this. In the Las Vegas area, we have 3 cities-Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson. The rest is unincorporated, operated by Clark County.
    The emergency services, while seperate, work very well together and they back each other up and share resources.
    The Clark County School District is the only district in the county. While it is not perfect, our per student costs are about $4500 less than Milwaukee and our district has passed no child left behind.
    I would like to see communities share resources, but not consolidate. Just look at the area around the airport, concerning fire service- You have MFD, Saint Francis, South Milwaukee, Cudahy, County Fire at the airport, Oak Creek and Greenfield all within a few miles of the airport. Why?

  2. You answered your own question Dan. Think about that plane crash of a few days ago. When a plane goes down, it could have tons of jet fuel. One fire truck would not be able to contend with a fire that big.

  3. No capper, why can't they all be under 1 unit of government- 1 big fire department like they do in the North Side suburbs.
    You don't have to close fire stations, but you can eliminate duplicate jobs such as chiefs, book keepers, dispatchers, trainers etc.
    Same with the police departments. Downtown Milwaukee has the MPD, Sheriff, Capitol Police and UWM police with assistance from Marquette and MATC security.

  4. That makes more sense, Dan, and I agree with you. However, like I pointed out in the post, there would be too many egos fighting to be top dog, and too unwilling to give up their little fiefdom to risk going for the brass ring.

  5. And I totally agree with you. And just think you could have Scott Walker as the leader of the entire County. :) Of course, then you would never run out of material.

  6. Dan,

    I explained why that would never, ever happen.

    But if you ever come back to WI, and I get to meet you, I will slug you for even suggesting that. :)

    But then again, you do have a point. I would become even more famous (or is it infamous). I could be known as the man that took down Scott Walker. I do believe that they would build a statue of me for that.

  7. Walker will be our next governor. My prediction of course. Hey Capper, would you liked to bet a lunch on it?

  8. I'd bet lunch and through in dessert that he doesn't make it through the primaries.