Ending the Abuse of Milwaukee

September 19, 2009

Edit: Just to be clear, Sonya came up with the original title, which was “A New Crusade for Fiscal Justice for Milwaukee.” I prefer it over “Ending the Abuse of Milwaukee,” which neither I nor Sonya had a hand in. The paper created that.

Here’s the Journal-Sentinel editorial. The original version, with full references, can be found here. Special thanks goes out to Sonya Jongsma Knauss for her copy editing wizardry and elegantly simple title. Here is the PPF report and the original Journal-Sentinel article about that report. Hopefully the piece helps spark an active discussion of Milwaukee’s future that is driven by city residents.

Though the editorial mentions a city sales tax, my overall goal was to sound the alarm and to provoke Milwaukee’s leaders and residents to step up and fight for a brighter future in Milwaukee. The city is facing the prospect of major decline, but an engaged citizenry and courageous leadership can together deliver a better future for Milwaukee.

Before Milwaukee can even think about revenue, it first needs to bring expenditures to a sustainable level. It seems that the city is off to a good start. Alderman Michael Murphy sought out cost-savings suggestions from city employees and the city reached a deal with AFSCME District Council 48 that should save taxpayers a good chunk of money. I have no doubt that a variety of innovative cost-savings ideas will come out during the city budget hearings, and I’m sure that the city will negotiate amicably with the other major unions to save Milwaukee much needed dollars.

But as the Public Policy Forum pointed out in its report, Milwaukee will face fiscal disaster in the coming years even if it manages to bring expenditures down to the level of inflation. So while cost-savings must be zealously pursued, Milwaukee cannot escape the fact that new revenues will have to come from somewhere in order to avoid a city collapse in the near future.

I currently believe the best option for solvency is a sales tax/property tax relief reform package that increases the city’s revenues without burdening Milwaukee residents. However, other ideas will emerge and I think Milwaukee should be open to anything that meets these simple guidelines:

1) Ensure Milwaukee’s solvency. The city is currently on a trajectory that leads to either bankruptcy or a crippling decrease in necessary services like public safety and roads. Any set of reforms must change this trajectory in a way that ensures that Milwaukee will be able to pay for services that are necessary to maintain a given standard of quality of life in the city.

2) Return fairness to the revenue structure. As the editorial discussed, Milwaukee is currently balancing its budget on the backs of the city’s poorest residents while nonresidents essentially get to use city services and enjoy the benefits of living near the city virtually cost-free. Not only is this unfair, but this is unsustainable as well.

For those who don’t know me, I was born and raised on the north side of Milwaukee. I attended St. Catherine’s grade school on 51st and Center and Dominican High School. Then, I moved on to UW-Madison and am currently finishing my studies at Indiana University-Bloomington (don’t worry, I’m a Badger, not a “Hoosier”). I’ll be rejoining my friends and family in Milwaukee in the summer when I plan to take the Wisconsin bar exam and pursue a career in the non-profit or public sector with the purpose of improving quality of life in Milwaukee.

I hope that you have comments/criticisms/counterpoints of the editorial and ideas for how Milwaukee should handle its fiscal situation. If you’d like to contact me, feel free to comment on this post, hit me up via twitter, or send me an email (nfholton@gmail.com). I wish Milwaukee provided an on-line forum where citizens could discuss city issues and interact with city officials and each other in a convenient way, but the next best thing is Urban Milwaukee, a website that covers some important city issues and frequently has spirited discussions in the comments section.

To learn more about Milwaukee’s fiscal issues, you can watch Mayor Barrett’s July budget hearing (especially his and Budget Director Nicolini’s presentations which are at the beginning) and thumb through Nicolini’s powerpoint presentation.

To express your concerns and share your ideas with city officials, you can find your district and contact your alderman. You could ask them how they’re going to balance the budget and how they’re going to ensure Milwaukee’s long-term solvency.

To further influence the city’s upcoming budget, you can attend one of the city’s upcoming budget hearings and let yourself be heard. Remember that politicians tend to take the path of least resistance, they’ll probably give the short end of the stick to those that they don’t hear from.

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