Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearls: Revisiting the need for an independent fiscal voice at Milwaukee County

In recent years, the Public Policy Forum has not been bashful about articulating the perilous fiscal condition of Milwaukee County government. Our intention has not been to "pile on," but to objectively discuss the size, scope and origin of the county's fiscal challenges and the need for a strategic approach to address them.

Our March 2009 report on the county's fiscal condition, for example, found the county "has attempted status quo management for far too long in an atmosphere of exceptional costs and restricted revenues." And, our review of the 2009 recommended budget cited the "failure of both branches of government to utilize a realistic and mutually agreed upon assessment of their long-term fiscal challenges," which was "indicative of a county culture that has existed for many years - one that focuses on each budget one year at a time, deferring tough problems and basic infrastructure needs while long-term liabilities grow."

Perhaps no development better exemplifies the consequences of status quo management than the county's need to spend millions of dollars on repairs and maintenance at its mental health complex in the wake of dozens of state citations.

The county has known for years that the complex is outdated and faces a huge maintenance and repair bill. The administration's proposal to move inpatient mental health services to a renovated St. Michael's hospital under a long-term lease arrangement was rejected by the county board, in part because supervisors were advised by their staff that it would be less expensive to build a new hospital on the County Grounds. Almost 18 months later, the county has made little progress on that initiative or any alternatives, and now finds itself needing to spend millions of dollars on repairs at a facility that clearly does not meet its needs.

The current circumstances are yet another example of the county's inability to realistically and effectively assess real problems and agree on real solutions due to distrust between the executive and legislative branches. Indeed, the fact that the two branches debated the future of their mental health complex for more than two years without agreement on fundamental fiscal and administrative realities - such as their capacity to issue debt or take on the legal, financial and project management complexities required to build a new hospital in a timely manner - suggests a compelling need for institutional change.

The Forum's 2009 budget review recommended establishment of an independent entity - along the lines either of the independently elected city comptroller or the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau - to counter the skepticism of each branch toward information provided by the other. We specifically noted that "in light of the recent dueling cost estimates between administration and county board staff regarding a new or renovated mental health complex," such an entity could be charged with evaluating and inserting the county's fiscal realities into critical policy debates.

The county did respond by increasing the independence of the existing controller, but he still lacks the tools and the charge to fulfill the function we envisioned. As millions of dollars are spent repairing an obsolete mental health complex the county is seeking to abandon, perhaps it is time for county decision-makers to revisit our suggestion.

Rob Henken