Public Policy Forum Blog

Recommended budget continues Milwaukee County’s path to fiscal stability

The Public Policy Forum’s annual review of Milwaukee County’s recommended budget  -- which we release this morning – cites a short list of controversial budget cuts and several new areas of reinvestment as the latest evidence that the county’s financial picture is vastly improved.  In fact, the effort to balance the need for further structural budget-cutting versus new opportunities to reinvest in key service areas constitutes a major theme of this year’s budget.

Overall, the report gives the budget high marks for striving to strike the appropriate balance.  It notes that continued efforts to share growing health care costs with employees and reduce expenditures in the sheriff’s budget constitute attacks against two of the county’s biggest structural cost drivers, while substantial new investments in infrastructure repairs and community-based mental health services represent efforts to shore up critical functions.  The report also praises changes to the budget document itself, including a new format that establishes important financial management policies.

Yet, despite those positive elements, the report also raises concerns about the nature and depth of certain budget-cutting strategies.  For example, the severity of cuts to mandated areas of the sheriff’s budget, the withdrawal of two thirds of the balance in the county’s Debt Service Reserve, and health care cost containment strategies that again lean heavily on county employees merit careful deliberation by the county board.  The report notes that as the board reviews those items, however, it is important that it similarly acknowledge the county’s long-term challenges and adhere to financial best practices laid out in the budget.

In addition to reviewing the specific strategies used in the budget to eliminate a $15 million structural gap and free up resources for new investment, the 2014 county budget brief includes analysis of the county’s renewed attempt to move toward performance-based budgeting and the implementation of its new Office of the Comptroller.

Overall, our analysis concludes that the recommended budget continues the county’s path toward financial stability.  While there is more work to be done, the emergence of reinvestment as a key budget theme demonstrates how far the county has come in its march toward structural balance.

The full 2014 Milwaukee County budget brief can be downloaded here, while our analysis of next year’s City of Milwaukee budget – released earlier this week – can be downloaded here.

Rob Henken