Public Policy Forum Blog

A ray of hope in Milwaukee County's annual budget fracas?

With the dust finally settled on this year's Milwaukee County budget debate, it's hard to avoid thinking of the movie "Groundhog Day".

Once again, the county executive submitted a budget that did not raise property taxes and that was heavy on privatization, reduction of full-time parks workers and cuts in programs treasured by the county board. Once again, the county board denied most outsourcing, restored positions and added funds for favored programs. Once again, the county executive vetoed most of what the board restored, and once again, the board overrode most of his vetoes.

Most disconcerting, as we pointed out in our 2009 county budget brief and budget testimony, is that once again, the county did virtually nothing to address its perennial and growing structural imbalance. To hammer home that point, our budget testimony cited the components that added up to a $41 million budget hole for 2010 even before the ink was dry on the 2009 budget. The county budget office recently conducted its own review and trumped our estimate by an additional $16 million. That's right - while the 2009 budget technically is balanced, for 2010 the county already is looking at a $57 million hole, meaning we're likely to see the Groundhog Day scenario surface all over again.

Or are we? Tucked into the county executive's veto message is the following ray of hope:

During deliberations on the 2009 budget a number of Supervisors expressed a desire to move forward with a strategic planning process to provide an improved framework for making budgetary decisions...As a result, I have directed the Director of the Department of Administrative Services to immediately begin working with the County Board staff on the
following fundamental components of an integrated strategic planning and budget process:
  • Creation of a 5-year financial forecast that defines the County's budgetary structural deficit and resulting fiscal challenges,
  • Identification of County financial policies and practices that need to be strengthened or modified,
  • Development of a new process for estimating County revenues that ensures that revenue estimates made during all phases of the budget process are realistic and based on solid analysis, and
  • Development of a space plan that identifies County facilities that are currently underutilized, estimates the potential market value of County facilities and plans for the potential relocation of County functions to maximize the utilization of County facilities while vacating and making surplus underutilized facilities.
While implementation of these measures certainly won't solve the county's budget problems, they would at least position the county executive and board to debate the 2010 budget with a common understanding of the five-year fiscal outlook and with some critical tools for ensuring that the process is objective and realistic. Might that, in turn, finally move the county past Groundhog Day and toward some long-term budget solutions? We can only hope so.
Rob Henken