Friday, June 19, 2009

How To Fix The County Budget

Scott Walker has been making a big deal about the supposed $15 million deficit that Milwaukee County is facing. Even though Walker's fear tactics turned out to be less than honest, he still used it to abuse his office in a egomaniacal power grab.

Rob Henken, former Milwaukee County official and now heading up the non-partisan Public Policy Forum points out that it is not unusual for the large budget deficits that occur at the beginning of the year decrease as more revenues come in. He added out that it is rather unusual for a very large deficit to decrease very rapidly.

SIDENOTE: Henken bemoans the fighting between the Walker and the County Board. He is correct in the assertion that this will only prolong the problem. However, what he fails to point out is the motivation of the players.

Walker's motivation is simple. He wants to be governor, and he has and will continue to play politics with the budget in a way that he believes will make him a more attractive candidate. Admittedly, he succeeds at this, if you believe that he could win a state wide election if one only needs the most extreme right wingers and no moderate Republican or independent voters.

The truth is that the actual deficit for this year's budget, if there is one, is that it is somewhere between $650,000 and $15 million. Walker is predicting a deficit of $90 million for next year. $75 million of it is due to the pension payment which keeps growing exponentially. The rapid growth is due in part to the crappy economy and in part to the fact that it was never properly funded for the past seven years.

So what do we do?

If you're Scott Walker, or someone that believes in the destroy the public good in favor of the private profit, you look at ways of hacking and slashing your way out of the mess. But just like the old fashioned medical treatment of bloodletting, this doesn't work, and will often harm and even kill the patient.

Likewise, just raising taxes is not a viable answer. Too many people cannot afford to keep paying out, especially when things like health care and energy, including gasoline, keeps gouging the people (see bloodletting again).

What is required is a balanced approach.

Cut the frivolous and/or duplicitous expenses

Walker wanted to cut things that people want and/or need, like the pools, social safety nets, the parks, etc. All he has managed to do is anger a lot of people. But he never cuts the things that could easily cut. Does Walker really need two county cars, and does he need a staff person to drive him around.

And speaking of which, does he really need all of those high priced coffee fetchers? No Snitch Nardelli, Tim "the campaign manager" Russell, Cindy Archer, Fran McLaughlin, a personal secretary, and who knows who else. That is a lot of staff that gets each paid a lot of money.

On a larger scale, there should be a closer look at the worker/manager ratios. There are some places that could easily cut back on some of the higher paid middle management and keep the revenue-generating front-line workers. (I've learned from my time in the private sector that when they keep piling on new administration staff and keep cutting the workers, things get top heavy and is setting itself up for failure.)

Push for the Sales Tax

Yeah, I know that Walker keeps complaining that there is no guarantee that it will be used for property tax relief. What he doesn't say is that the County could always write in that guarantee themselves. One also has to keep in mind that property tax relief doesn't always mean a precipitous drop in taxes. It could also mean keeping them from getting even worse than they already are.

Keeping the transit and parks systems alive and vibrant is not an issue of can we afford them, but can we afford not to have them?

And let's face it, without a decent, operable mass transit system, the County will surely fail. There are a lot of people that do rely on the buses to get to and from work, to the store, to see friends and family. Without it, our local economy will go through the floor.

Seeing how every other large urban area in the entire country is seeing a surge in ridership, why is Milwaukee the only one that has a drop. Obviously, it's because Walker's business plan of cutting routes and increasing fares is not working.

And without the parks and pools, there will be no relief for people to let out stress in a safe, appropriate manner. Not everyone lives in a luxurious manse with a pool and tennis court and a small, wooded corner. But they still need a chance to unwind.


One of the recurring themes that keep coming up is for the county and the municipalities come up with ways to stop duplicating each other's services. This can be something as routine and brainless such as the recent collaboration between Waukesha and Milwaukee County to extend a mutual bus line to the EMS program to the library deal.

While some people call for a complete merger of the county and all of the municipalities in the county, I don't think that is a practical suggestion. And even if it was possible, it couldn't be done in time to help with the current situation.

Other ideas could include sharing grass cutting equipment and responsibilities, as well as for snow plowing and other similar jobs. If municipalities are able to have understandings for emergencies like medical emergencies, fires or the need of police, why can't they do something for more mundane responsibilities.

Settle the contract negotiations

This alone could cover the majority of the deficit, if not entirely, for the 2009 budget.

When it came time to negotiate the 2006-8 contract, Walker stalled then as well. After he finally dropped out of the 2006 gubernatorial primary, Doyle sent Dave Reimer (Walker's 2004 opponent for the county executive race) to act as a mediator. Not only did the contract end up being almost identical to the union's original offer, Walker ended up giving everyone a $250 signing bonus.

The county's number crunchers estimated that the county lost several millions of dollars in lost savings by the delay in the contract settlement. the savings came from a higher share of health care payments by the workers, as well as a protracted pay raise schedule.

Based on what I know of his behaviors in this go around, he did not learn from that lesson.

And for those who just may have an irrational hatred of the union, and don't think a mutually advantageous contract is possible, I would simply refer you to the story of the State of Pennsylvania and AFSCME Council 13 and other unions, in which an entire state's budget was helped and there were no furloughs.

All it takes is both sides to sit down and do some honest, good faith bargaining. I know AFSCME is ready and willing. Is Walker?


These suggestions should be able to easily cover any deficit for 2009 and put a large dent in any projected deficit for next year. But the biggest step the county could make to deal with that budget also starts this year:
Keep Walker out of the budget planning process.


  1. I need to point out a correction, Capper. The $75 million projected pension fund payment does not consitute $75 million of the $90 million projected deficit for 2010. Only the portion of the $75 million that exceeds the 2009 budgeted pension fund contribution is part of the 2010 deficit calculation, which is based on forecasted changes to budgeted expenditures and revenues between 2009 and 2010. The county budgeted $48.4 million for its reitrement system contribution in 2009, so only the additional $27 million is counted toward the $90 million. The remainder is based on other projected holes, such as decreased state revenues, increased health care costs, etc.

  2. Duly noted. I pulled the numbers from this article, which put the numbers at $32M for the bonds and $39 million for the pension fund that the bonds don't cover.

    I know that there is an idea being forwarded to the board that is supposed to front load the payment schedule for the bonds, although I don't now it's status.

    I wonder how much the health care costs, etc. would be be if the cotnract issues were resolved.

  3. You did a nice job making suggestions, some of which I may agree or disagre with, but it is a start.
    Other suggestions: How much is owed to the Courts? How much can they collect if the County starts playing hard ball while maybe offering an amenesty program?
    Get rid of the County Fire department.
    Cooperate with the plowing during the winter, like you mentioned, along with police duties, buying supplies, share cost of insurance between different agencies etc.
    Didn't the County just get a multi million dollar settlement from the pension case and shouldn't that help with the deficit?

  4. Dan,

    With the 440th out, the county's FD is the only one that would be train for airport related fires, and would necessarily be available in a timely fashion.

    As for the pension lawsuit, that money all went into the pension fund.