Public Policy Forum Blog

Forum's top five research findings of 2013

As the new year approaches, it’s time again for the Forum to reflect on its past year of public policy research and to announce its list of top five research findings for the year. Last year’s list included findings on quality ratings for Milwaukee child care providers, growth in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the breadth of MATC’s technical diploma offerings, and MPS’ short-term fiscal prognosis. 

This year’s list includes some of the same research areas and a few new ones. Here’s the 2013 list in chronological order:

  1. When considered as a whole, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program looks a lot like MPS. Our annual survey of voucher school participants released in February revealed that from a demographic standpoint, participants in Milwaukee’s parental choice program are very similar to students attending the Milwaukee Public Schools. For example, 79% of MPCP students are economically disadvantaged and 80% are minority, which is comparable to the 84% and 86% respectively at MPS. Previous studies also have found that standardized test scores are similar among the two groups of students. This prompted us to ask whether the $6,442 per student tuition voucher payment – which had risen only 10% during the past decade – was sufficient to educate students with many of the same challenges facing those attending MPS.
  1. Mental Health Complex downsizing will have limited cost savings without corresponding cuts in overhead. Our March report assessing the fiscal condition of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division found that despite a 27% decrease in inpatient bed capacity, the county was anticipating only a 4% property tax levy savings in inpatient services in its 2013 budget. When we searched for an explanation, we found that BHD was carrying $43 million in internal and external overhead charges (e.g. administrative, fiscal, legal) that were not materially reduced by the downsizing, thus limiting the overall savings. We suggested that the savings the county was counting on to support the transfer of care into community-based settings would not materialize unless BHD support services and facilities also were downsized.
  1. Fire department consolidation in Milwaukee County’s South Shore should be possible without sacrificing service quality. In September, we released a report analyzing several options for creating a consolidated fire department to serve Cudahy, South Milwaukee, and St. Francis. A key question was whether a consolidation option might exist that would accommodate the need for budget savings and maintain (or perhaps enhance) existing levels of service. We identified one such scenario – which would largely maintain existing firefighting capacity while enhancing EMS service levels – as having great potential to achieve that objective. In fact, our analysis showed that scenario could save about $250,000 annually in operating costs and produce vehicle replacement savings of $1.7 million between now and 2020.
  1. Milwaukee County’s annual expenditures for capital debt on its parks and cultural institutions approach those for operations. Our 164-page report on major cultural and entertainment assets – released in December – is full of interesting findings, but perhaps none rises to the level of our revelation that the county will spend nearly $27 million on debt service related to its parks and cultural facilities in 2013, as compared to $36 million on operations. The county’s debt service spending on parks and culture is not broken out in the annual budget and has flown under the radar screen as policymakers have debated the need for greater operational support. Our finding suggests that consideration of some form of enhanced support for parks and culture debt – which would allow for an expanded capital program – should trump the debate about a new dedicated funding source for operations.
  1. There are several legitimate obstacles to using fixed route transit to bring city workers to suburban jobs. Our December report exploring the potential for expanded bus service to connect Milwaukee workers with suburban job centers identified several barriers that call into question the efficacy of that approach. Among them are the “last mile” problem, which refers to the difficulty of dropping off riders within walking distance of their job site given the dispersed nature of suburban employers (even within the same industrial park); and the lack of both development density and mixed land uses along potential suburban routes, which are needed to produce ridership throughout the day. These challenges reinforce the notion that governments should encourage businesses with workforce challenges to locate in or near higher-density areas where public transit services already exist or where new transit connections could be sustained.

With 15 research reports in 2013, it was not easy to reduce our list of top findings to five. Left off the list this year were important findings related to the performance of MPS students who take Advanced Placement and other specialized curricula; the “economic” achievement gap for K-12 students in southeast Wisconsin; the logic of transferring parts of Milwaukee County’s water utility service area to the Wauwatosa water utility; and successful models for enhancing arts education from other parts of the country. Those interested in reviewing those and other findings can access the Forum’s full list of research publications here

Rob Henken