Public Policy Forum Blog

The Infrastructure-Police Tug of War

Sunday’s expose in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on city police overtime raised questions about management choices over the past couple of years. But a bigger picture of shifting priorities emerges when the analysis spans the longer term. Over the past several decades, the police department has gobbled an ever-increasing piece of the city’s financial pie.

Mayor Barrett’s proposed 2008 budget calls for $575 million in spending on general city purposes. Most of the money will go to the police ($217 million) and fire ($97 million) departments. Compare that to 60 years ago, when police accounted for less than 20% of city spending and nearly half went to public works, largely to develop and maintain the city’s infrastructure. Put another way, public works spending was well over double police spending in 1947; today we spend twice as much on police as on public works.

Obviously many factors help explain this dramatic change. What’s constant over the years is that about three-quarters of city tax money supports just three functions of municipal government: police, fire and public works. In the long run, the police department has dominated, infrastructure gets a smaller piece of the pie, and the relentless trend raises a red flag about the city’s long-term capacity to provide for the infrastructure that underlies economic growth.