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Issue of the Week: Saving Mass Transit

Plus: Hero of the Week

Dec. 5, 2012
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Public transit and its funding are back in the news as the Milwaukee County board struggles with the real issue of how to keep the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) functioning with sufficient bus lines to be viable and at a fair cost to riders.

This is a recurring issue, but two structural things do not change. First, every city needs a mass transit system to function as a viable economic entity. If everyone could and did drive a car to their jobs, congestion would be monumental, pollution would resemble that of a developing country, and the space that would need to be dedicated for parking would create a serious misallocation of a city’s resources. Second, public transit systems need some form of subsidies. It is virtually impossible to have a broad-based urban transportation grid that can be supported solely by the fare box. Cars are heavily subsidized, for example, with tax dollars for street construction and maintenance, including snow removal in states like Wisconsin. 

Wise business owners understand they are getting a huge subsidy with mass transit. It enables businesses to have a much larger employee pool, which gives them more leverage when they negotiate with employees. Also, they don’t need to provide as much parking for their employees, which can be a substantial cost to employers in high-density areas like Downtown or the Third Ward. They also understand the value of supporting and subsidizing mass transit because it is necessary for a strong local economy. They know that all local employees are also consumers and their businesses often rely on the purchases made by local residents. Business owners simply understand that without public transit, the local economy would be much diminished.

In 2008, Milwaukee County held an advisory referendum asking the voters if they would be willing to pay an additional one percentage point in sales tax, where half of that money would create a designated fund to support mass transit. Despite the opposition of then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the citizens spoke and the referendum passed. It was only advisory, though, because that is all that state law allows. The next step was for the state Legislature to pass enabling legislation to allow Milwaukee County to proceed with what a majority of the voters in the county wanted. Lacking support from Gov. Jim Doyle, the proposal didn’t make it through the legislative process.

Now we have a new county executive who again opposes the will of county residents. It is very clear that Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele does not want to raise any tax, no matter what the need, because he wants to be able to claim when he runs for higher office, as his friends say he will, that as county executive he never raised taxes. He is focused on appeasing the tea party crowd.

Abele argues that the sales tax is a regressive one since it takes a larger percentage of income of lower-income people. Generally, that is correct, but Wisconsin exempts many basic necessities from the sales tax—for example, food purchased in a grocery store—so Wisconsin’s sales tax is not regressive. Also, it is estimated that about a third of the sales tax would be paid by people who live outside of Milwaukee County but come into our county and utilize our resources. 

Unfortunately, since Abele has had no education in or experience with taxation—or government in general—and the uniqueness of Wisconsin’s more progressive sales tax, he is again making poor decisions because, as usual, he refuses to listen to anyone and does not seem to be able to learn how government actually works. 

In addition, Abele has now made it very clear to his friends that he is primarily focusing on positioning himself to run for governor and is making decisions as county executive that he thinks will further his gubernatorial aspirations even if they are at the expense of Milwaukee County residents. 

On the positive side, currently Milwaukee County has a very unified Board of Supervisors led by the capable Chair Marina Dimitrijevic. On this issue and many others, Abele would be most productive if he would try to work with the board and move Milwaukee County forward. The very naïve county executive could learn a lot from some of the very smart and experienced supervisors now serving on the board. Hopefully, Abele will not do too much damage to Milwaukee County as he slowly tries to learn.

Heroes of the Week

Lad Lake’s St. Rose Center and WGIRLS Volunteers


WGIRLS Milwaukee will host its fourth annual “Hope for the Holidays” event to raise money and items for overlooked but worthy nonprofit organizations. This year’s WGIRLS’ fundraiser on Dec. 6 will support Lad Lake’s St. Rose Center (3801 N. 88th St.) and its Family Reunification Program (FRP). The FRP, founded in 2000, is a volunteer-run program that helps children affected by a parent’s incarceration. Volunteers help children cope with emotions that come with being separated from a parent and work on reunifying the family after the parent is released from incarceration.

WGIRLS is striving to raise $10,000 to purchase holiday gifts for at least 40 children in the program and is accepting donations of winter clothing for boys and girls up to the age of 17 (clothing can be brought to the event). To learn more about donating, call Rachael Hughes at 262-424-2533 or email her at digital-marketing@milwaukee.wgirls.org. The event will be held from 7-10 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 6, at Moct (240 E. Pittsburgh Ave.) and tickets can be purchased at wgirls.org. To learn more about Lad Lake’s St. Rose Center’s FRP and other programs, please visit ladlake.org.


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