Public Policy Forum Blog

The Forum's top five research findings of 2011

With the end of the year upon us, it’s time once again for the Forum to unveil its top five research findings of 2011. We started this annual tradition last year with a list that included findings on Milwaukee's skilled workforce, Milwaukee Area Technical College spending habits, and the imbalanced state of Milwaukee County's adult mental health system. This year's list is equally diverse and provocative (or so we hope). Without further ado, here they are in chronological order:
  1. Greater Milwaukeeans need to be better educated about how their individual actions impact regional water quality. Our January report detailing results of a survey of 400 area residents on water-related issues revealed that nearly 85% feel "the actions of individuals do not have an impact on water quality and quantity problems," while only 4% feel they "have a responsibility to future generations to protect the region’s water resources." Those responses may be linked to the survey's additional finding that respondents place a relatively low value on water quality as a factor in the regional economy, and suggest that stepped up public education efforts are in order, particularly if the region's status as a freshwater innovator is to be promoted.
  2. MMSD's capital spending needs are daunting and may conflict with the capital needs of other local governments. Our comprehensive fiscal assessment of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) - released in June - found a local governmental body that is in sound fiscal condition. Nevertheless, despite the completion of deep tunnel expenditures and expiration of stipulation agreements with federal and state regulators, "the types of enormous capital investments that distinguish MMSD from other local governments...may need to continue because fundamental water pollution problems remain." We caution that in light of their enormity, MMSD’s capital priorities may need to be debated in the context of the investment needs faced by other local governments for schools, parks, roads, libraries, etc.
  3. Milwaukee County was housing or paying for an average of 556 fewer adult and juvenile inmates per day at the end of 2010 than it was at the end of 2008. In a June research brief, we documented the remarkable decline in the county's inmate population and speculated on possible causes. We also calculated related financial savings, estimating the county spent $12 million less on adult and juvenile incarceration in 2010 than it did two years earlier. The brief noted that while some county law enforcement officials disagreed on the public safety impacts of reduced inmate populations, the county's fiscal woes demanded consideration of strategies to sustain the downward trends.
  4. Analysis of the budgets of 15 comparable cities shows Milwaukee is the only one funded substantially with intergovernmental revenue. While the Forum has consistently reported on Milwaukee's significant reliance on state government, even we were surprised at the extent of that reliance when compared to other cities. A July report by the Forum's 2010-11 Norman N. Gill fellow found that the 15 comparison cities use intergovernmental revenue to fund about 18% of their budgets, as compared to Milwaukee's 46%. Meanwhile, at least half of every other city’s budget is funded by local tax revenue, with most having access to a local sales or income tax to supplement property tax funding.
  5. Strategic economic development planning is a national trend that has not yet taken hold in Milwaukee. "Assembling the Parts," our November report on Milwaukee's economic development landscape, noted that while impressive progress has been made by city and private sector leaders to assemble the right pieces of a comprehensive economic development strategy, the city still could benefit from a strategic vision and plan that ties those pieces together into a "cohesive and strategically organized whole." We cited the existence of such plans in other cities and discussed a new "metropolitan business planning" concept engineered by the Brookings Institute that could provide great value to Milwaukee.

With 20 research reports in 2011, it was not easy for us to narrow down our list of top findings to five. Left off the list this year were important findings related to the readiness of area child care providers for the state's new quality ratings system; the impacts of the state budget repair bill on Milwaukee's city and county budgets; the views of area residents on municipal shared services and consolidation; and the potential for greater collaboration in technology transfer among local universities. Those interested in reviewing those and other findings can check out our full list of research publications here.

Rob Henken