Public Policy Forum Blog

Milwaukee County Government: Should it stay or should it go?

This morning, the Forum released Should it Stay or Should it Go, our eagerly anticipated report on potential restructuring of Milwaukee County government. It's long (160 pages), complicated and nuanced - which should come as no surprise given the enormity of the topic.

Indeed, that's a message that hopefully will resonate with this report. At a time when many metro Milwaukeeans justifiably are frustrated with their problem-plagued public institutions, it is tempting to seek broad, sweeping solutions that purportedly will solve all the problems at once. Unfortunately, such solutions seldom exist, and many that are tossed around pose significant and legitimate policy-oriented, legal and logistical considerations.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue bold and far-reaching solutions. It does mean, however, that they demand thoughtful, objective and rigorous analysis, and that sometimes incremental reform is a more appropriate strategy.

Milwaukee County government has been around for 175 years and consideration of its dismantling requires great care. Our approach is to examine the government "function-by-function." This allows us to consider why each service is housed in county government; who might provide the services if not the county; alternative ways in which other metro areas are administering the same services; and the pros, cons and logistical considerations associated with those alternative ways.

We conclude that any attempt to eliminate Milwaukee County government would require "resolute leadership from state government and a willingness by the state to devote considerable human resources and an up-front financial investment." We also suggest that, as an alternative to complete dismantling, consideration might be given to removing the major discretionary functions (e.g. parks, culture and transit) and creating a streamlined executive and legislative structure with the goal of producing less ideological acrimony and better fiscal management.

Finally, we outline a series of policy options to isolate and control pension and retiree health care costs; and we even suggest consideration of folding certain municipal functions into county government if the right type of administrative structure can be created.

While we strongly urge interested parties to read the full report, an executive summary and media release can be accessed here and here. The Forum looks forward to a lively and thoughtful public policy discussion.
Author: 
Rob Henken