Public Policy Forum Blog

The least objectionable of several undesirable options?

The Journal Sentinel's Dan Egan and Larry Sandler did a nice job in Monday's newspaper summarizing the issues surrounding a potential long-term lease of the Milwaukee water utility.

The story aptly captures the overriding concern likely to be associated with the proposal: relinquishing control of a public asset to a profit-driven private entity will result in higher costs for users. That concern is exacerbated by the fact that such control would need to be relinquished for a lengthy period of time - perhaps 75 to 100 years - to make the economics of the deal work.

It is those economics, of course, that have led city policymakers to consider this option, as it is thought that a long-term lease could attract an upfront payment in the range of $500 million. City Comptroller Wally Morics wisely has proposed that, if such a deal were to go forward, those funds would serve as a pseudo-endowment that would produce a significant, ongoing source of revenue to city government, as opposed to a short-term revenue boost.

It is far too early to evaluate whether the water works proposal or the other huge privatization proposal that has been floated for Milwaukee - a long-term lease of General Mitchell International Airport - will be in the best interest of the taxpaying public. But should these proposals reach the point of serious deliberation, then it is critical to keep in mind why they are being contemplated in the first place.

In the case of the city, a key factor is the lack of revenue options available to address its extraordinary expenditure pressures. City officials face a huge increase in the required pension fund contribution resulting from the stock market collapse, annual employee and retiree health care costs that significantly exceed the rate of inflation, and steady or even increased demand for its various services (including, most notably, police and fire). In the meantime, the state revenue streams upon which the city heavily depends are being cut because of state budget woes, and the state has blocked its ability to consider new local revenue options.

In fact, in comparing Milwaukee to 10 other similar-sized cities (as part of a fiscal assessment of city government to be released this summer that will be similar to our recent assessment of county government), the Forum found that Milwaukee essentially is the only one that does not utilize a city-specific sales, income, hotel or food service tax to complement the property tax. Milwaukee officials increasingly have turned to increased fees (e.g. solid waste and snow/ice) as an alternative revenue source, but even that source is limited because of state policy prohibiting service fee revenue from exceeding the direct cost of providing the service and being used to support other aspects of city government.

Few would argue that relinquishing public sector control of critical assets is an optimal approach. But with state funding being cut, property taxes capped, and their hands largely tied on both the fixed cost and new revenue side, it was inevitable that city leaders would have to consider this option.

So, those who are rightly concerned that public-private lease deals could increase costs for users and allow profit motive to outstrip the public good must weigh those concerns against those associated with major cuts in government services and/or major increases in other fees or taxes. Indeed, decisions on privatization may come down to choosing the least objectionable of several undesirable options.

Rob Henken