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Is the County Board Downsizing a Done Deal?

Bill is unveiled but Milwaukeeans begin pushing back

Jan. 15, 2013
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Long rumored to be in the works, the draft of a bill to cut the pay and budget of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors was unveiled on Friday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Co-authored by former Milwaukee County supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, who was sworn in last week as the Republican state Rep. from West Allis, the bill would cut supervisors’ pay from $52,000 to $15,000 and reduce their operating budget to 0.25% of the county’s operating budget, or about $1 million.

Sanfelippo was cheered on by the bill’s co-author, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills); former conservative Democratic lawmaker Jason Fields; Julia Taylor, president of the conservative lobbying group Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC); Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor; and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin head Maria Monreal-Cameron, a fellow conservative.

Although the bill’s supporters gave themselves a hearty round of applause, the advocates of downsizing were also jeered by protesters from Citizen Action of Wisconsin, who held signs saying “Say no to GOP power grab” and “Latinos for full-time supervisors,” among others.

Supporters want this bill to be fast-tracked in the state Legislature, since they want to place the question on the county’s April 2 ballot as a binding referendum. That would allow the provisions to kick in on Jan. 1, 2014, as specified in the bill. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald indicated on Tuesday that he wasn’t on board with that plan.

Supporters argue that the savings from the bill would give Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele an easier time crafting his budget for 2014. In addition, he would have less resistance from the county board supervisors because they would not have the time or resources to be an effective check and balance to the executive. This will enable Abele to shrink or even “blow up” county government, as he and the GMC have long wanted.

Not surprisingly, Abele, who has deep ties to the GMC, supports the bill.


Questions About Provisions

Since Republicans Sanfelippo and Darling are in the majority in the state Assembly and Senate, they should both have the numbers to pass the bill by Feb. 18 if GOP leaders allow it.

As creations and arms of state government, the state Legislature grants counties their powers and duties. That said, political and legal experts are looking into the bill’s provisions and, as of this writing, say that even if one doesn’t agree with the aim of the bill, it could be passed.

So what’s in it?

n Changing supervisors’ compensation mid-term: If Milwaukee County voters ratify the changes in a binding referendum, the board’s pay and budget cuts would begin Jan. 1, 2014, in the midst of the supervisors’ current four-year terms. Experts who have spoken to the Shepherd say they don’t know of any precedent for cutting pay mid-term, but concede that legislators could find a way to make this legal, perhaps by pushing off the start date until the supervisors’ next term begins.

n Targeting Milwaukee County: The state constitution grants municipalities, such as the city of Milwaukee, broad “home rule” powers. That means the state Legislature cannot single out the city of Milwaukee and pass legislation that only affects it if the bill does not have a statewide impact.

Wisconsin counties don’t have the same type of broad home rule authority, but state statutes do grant them authority over the administration of their own affairs. However, because these are statutorily granted powers—not constitutional powers—they can be changed by legislation.

Sanfelippo’s bill specifically targets Milwaukee County, and only Milwaukee County, by requiring that the limitations be placed solely on boards in counties with more than 500,000 residents.

n Requiring a county-wide binding referendum: According to the bill unveiled last week, the legislation would require the county to hold a binding referendum on April 2, but it doesn’t include the specific question to be placed on the ballot. Currently, there is no provision in state statutes that allows a county to hold a binding referendum on a question such as this. As it stands now, counties are only allowed to hold binding referenda on a few very specific matters, such as consolidating counties. However, the legislature can pass this legislation whether the county residents like it or not, so this provision is some token effort to get them involved.

Sanfelippo’s bill goes one step further by overtly banning the county from placing any other referendum question on the April 2 ballot, contradicting his argument that his bill would allow local voters to make their voices heard.


Jursik: ‘Scott Walker on Steroids’

Milwaukee County Supervisor Patricia Jursik, an attorney, said that state legislators could likely get away with changing the board’s pay and budget in this manner. But she warned that shrinking the board’s budget from $6.6 million to about $1 million wouldn’t cover the roughly $1 million in legacy costs incurred by former board employees, which now comes out of the board’s budget. Nor was Sanfelippo’s bill in the public’s best interest, Jursik said, since it would weaken the board and allow moneyed special interests to grab county assets, such as parkland.

And she had harsh words for Abele, who has been working with the GMC to raise support for downsizing the board.

“We now have Scott Walker on steroids,” Jursik said.

Like Walker, Abele has had a contentious relationship with board members as he’s sought to diminish the board’s power and reduce public transparency. Last summer, Abele conducted a behind-the-scenes search for a private developer for the county’s Transit Center, cutting out the input of the public and the board until after he had selected his favorite developer and unveiled the project at a press conference. Abele also bypassed the board when drafting an agreement with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to allow Milwaukee police to patrol the parks. Supervisors cut that provision from Abele’s proposed budget, and then overrode Abele’s veto of their vote, although it preserved Abele’s request to allow the city to handle 911 calls coming from the city.

Both Abele and Walker have had tight relationships with the conservative business group Greater Milwaukee Committee.

Walker’s gubernatorial campaign chair was GMC board chair Michael Grebe, but Walker didn’t act on GMC board member Sheldon Lubar’s push to “blow up” county government.

Abele, who participated in GMC activities as a philanthropist before he was elected county executive in 2011, is now acting on Lubar’s wishes to destroy the board.

Milwaukee County By the Numbers


State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) and his allies have claimed that Milwaukee County supervisors’ pay and operating budget are out of line with other county supervisors’ pay in Wisconsin. Here’s how the board’s compensation and makeup compare to other elected officials around the state:


■ Milwaukee County supervisors’ pay: $50,679 plus benefits; number of residents per district: 52,685, with supervisors earning roughly $0.96 per resident

■ Waukesha County supervisors’ pay: $9,536; number of residents per district: 15,637, with supervisors earning roughly $0.61 per resident

■ Milwaukee County supervisors’ pay if Sanfelippo’s bill is passed: $15,000 with no benefits; number of residents per district: 52,685, with supervisors earning $0.28 per resident

■ Milwaukee Common Council members’ pay: $72,096 plus benefits; residents per district: 39,655, with members earning $1.82 per resident

■ State representatives’ pay: $49,943 plus $88 per diem and benefits; number of residents per district: 57,000, with members earning at minimum $0.88 per resident

■ Number of Milwaukee County board members: 18 members with 52,685 residents per district; state statutes allow the county to elect up to 47 board members

■ Largest county board: Marathon County, with 38 members each serving 3,540 residents per district

■ Average county board in Wisconsin: 22.5 members with 3,411 residents per district

■ Number of Wisconsin counties governed by boards with more members than Milwaukee County’s board: 53 out of 72

■ Year Wisconsin established boards of supervisors as the standard governing body of its counties: 1870

■ Creation of position of Milwaukee County executive: 1960

■ Years Milwaukee County board governed without a county executive: 126

Data collected from Milwaukee.gov, Wisconsin State Legislature website, Wisconsin Counties Association, University of Wisconsin-Extension Fact Sheet




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