Public Policy Forum Blog

Downsizing local government

The Forum has done a considerable amount of work over the past two years analyzing the fiscal health of the city and county of Milwaukee. Our research has caused us to be concerned about the ability of local governments to continue to provide the same breadth and quality of core services, given the magnitude of their structural deficits. The bottom line is that these governments may soon be at the point where the only way to get into balance is to stop providing certain services.

As drastic as that sounds, in reality this scenario already may be occurring. In Madison, for example, the lack of an updated downtown economic development plan has caused the business community to step in and conduct the planning itself. The city's failure to plan is not the result of a lack of willingness to do it. In fact, the city has budgeted $70,000 for the planning process. According to the Capitol Times, the city simply has been unable to create the plan because the Department of Planning & Development is stretched too thin and has had to prioritize other activities.

Citizens of Madison must now decide whether they are troubled by this or not. Is city planning an essential city service or could it be done in the private sector? Budget constraints have forced the issue, but a re-evaluation of the most realistic level of services that citizens and taxpayers should expect is probably a good idea. In fact, the Forum is urging policymakers, citizens, taxpayers and others in Milwaukee to conduct that very debate. If our county or city government's balance sheets cannot be righted without giving up some services, what are we willing to give up? How large or small of a government can we sustain?

A very detailed analysis of this issue with regard to county government will be released at a members only event on Jan. 27. Stay tuned.

Anneliese Dickman