Public Policy Forum Blog

Local government financial challenges merit greater public education

The Forum's recently-released report on the City of Milwaukee's revenue structure is a byproduct of several years of budget analysis and monitoring. Through our examination of the City's annual budget challenges, we became convinced that major changes to its basic financial structure must be considered to move beyond annual band-aids and truly improve Milwaukee's long-term financial health.

We acknowledge that most citizens do not have the time to research their local governments' financial condition like we do, and that's why we seek to share our knowledge and provide useful context (in this case, through our examination of peer cities). And, while we have no interest in diminishing our own mission, we think it's important for local governments to think about ways they can do the same.

Milwaukee County recently launched an initiative that can serve as a shining example. In an attempt to increase transparency and educate the public about the state of its finances, the County developed an interactive website that allows citizens to experience first-hand the challenges involved in "balancing the needs of competing priorities with finite resources."

The website – called Balancing Act – lays out projected expenditure needs in the County's major functional categories for 2018 and the options available to generate resources to meet those needs. It then asks users to develop their own balanced budget. This allows them to grapple with the difficult decisions required to make ends meet, and it illustrates why corresponding budget cuts are needed whenever County policymakers wish to increase funding for high-priority programs or services.     

As the 2018 budget season approaches, efforts like this will be critical to keeping the public informed. Indeed, increasing retirement liabilities and infrastructure challenges, stagnant state aids, and limited local revenue options are forcing difficult budget choices not only on the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, but also on local governments throughout our region.

Just recently, for example, Washington County reached out to its neighbors to explore possibilities for consolidation, and the North Shore Fire Department – perhaps our state's most successful example of intergovernmental cooperation – warned that it will be forced to consider service cuts under its current revenue structure.  

These difficult choices result from a set of fiscal circumstances that, while complex, can be easily understood by taxpayers. The catch is that they have an interest in examining them and the tools available to do so.

Lent Upson, the former leader of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, once said that "The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about." That obligation falls on both citizens and local governments, which is why we commend Milwaukee County for investing in Balancing Act and urge other local governments to similarly seek ways to better educate their constituents about the financial challenges they face.         

Rob Henken