Public Policy Forum Blog

Discussion of big picture government reforms should be accompanied by small-scale consolidation

If last week's Public Policy Forum Viewpoint Luncheon on the future of county government taught us anything, it's that far-reaching structural reform of our governmental framework will not be easy (to watch the luncheon discussion on the Wisconsin Eye website, click here).

We gathered six individuals with intimate knowledge of county government - as well as standing with diverse elements of the community - to offer their insights on the future of Milwaukee County government and our overall government structure. Only one of the six voiced support for the notion of "blowing up" the county, while several said the problem is not Milwaukee County government's structure or existence, but the inability of its leaders to get along and act decisively.

As reported by WisPolitics, while there was not a lot of support for dissolving county government, there was virtual unanimity that there is too much redundancy in government and too many layers. One panelist suggested the best approach would be to enlarge county government by eliminating municipalities and folding their functions into it, a notion that was angrily refuted by a local mayor in the audience. Others cited various examples of smaller-scale consolidation activities that could begin immediately.

Our Viewpoint demonstrated that the question of whether and how to restructure our system of governance is highly complex, highly political, and demands a great deal of additional thought and research. It showed there's a lack of consensus on what to do, though this cannot be an excuse for failing to properly acknowledge the depth of Milwaukee County's fiscal problems and the need to focus on solutions. The Forum plans to place those problems in better context in the near future with a research product that will objectively assess the county's fiscal condition using well-established criteria and benchmarks.

In the meantime, we also learned that while we thoughtfully grapple with big issues of government structure, we should not overlook pursuit of smaller consolidation efforts. The county itself just launched an impressive consolidation initiative with the city of Cudahy, under which the county will provide information technology support to the city. Cudahy gets IT support at a better price than it would from hiring its own staff or contracting with the private sector, and the county's IT operation gets some outside revenue to reduce its need for property tax support.

Consolidation efforts like this will not solve the fiscal problems facing county and municipal governments. However, they're a step in the right direction fiscally, and they will do wonders in convincing the public that government does have the ability to look past protecting its turf and toward better management of taxpayer resources.

Rob Henken