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Dueling County Reform Proposals Vie for Support

Supervisors move ahead before state Senate vote

Apr. 24, 2013
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On Monday afternoon, a Milwaukee County Board committee voted 6 to 1 to streamline county government and reduce supervisors’ salaries and budget.

The full board is set to vote on the measure on Thursday.

Ten members of the 18-member board are listed as co-authors of the resolution, indicating that its passage is likely.

Yet the board’s effort to reform itself could be dead on arrival, since the state Legislature appears to be fast-tracking legislation to slash supervisors’ pay and budget and reduce the Milwaukee County board’s power and hand it to the Milwaukee County executive.

A state Assembly committee has already signed off on the bill; a state Senate committee is scheduled to hear it Wednesday morning.

Previously, state senators had said they’d wait until the fall to move on the bill so that Milwaukee County supervisors could launch their own reforms. But last week state Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) said he wanted his chamber to move ahead based on allegations that the board was conducting labor negotiations against the advice of the county’s attorneys.

Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic, the author of the proposal, told the Shepherd that while state legislators had said they wanted the county to reform itself, none gave her guidance on what, exactly, would meet their definition of reform and head off state intervention.

But she called the county’s proposal “huge.”

“Nobody’s ever done anything this significant at the local level,” Dimitrijevic said. “When is the last time you saw any elected official totally decreasing their pension, changing their terms, their salary and make a 50% staff cut? We’ve been trying to listen to everyone who has an interest. And that does include state legislators.”


Dimitrijevic: A ‘Compromise’ Proposal

The board’s attempt to exert control over its own affairs could be trumped by the Legislature’s actions.

If there’s conflict between the state and county measures, “the state’s action will take precedence,” said Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, in Monday’s meeting.

The board’s reform measure contains some items from the state legislation as proposed by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and the conservative business group Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), which has called for smaller government and increased privatization. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele also supports the Sanfelippo-Darling-GMC bill, since it would consolidate power in his office and weaken the board’s oversight of contracts and sale of county assets.

Both proposals would cut supervisors’ terms in half, from four years to two years. Supervisor Steve Taylor requested that the county executive’s term be cut to two years as well. Taylor also asked that the county executive and his staff undergo the same kind of 12-hour training that the resolution would mandate for supervisors and their staff.

“Rookie mistakes are still rookie mistakes two years in,” Taylor said of Abele’s administrative staff.

The committee said it would consider those requests during the full board meeting on Thursday.

The board’s resolution, however, doesn’t give the county executive as much power as Abele and the GMC have sought through Sanfelippo’s bill.

Dimitrijevic called the county proposal a “compromise” measure based on public input given during the board’s recent listening tour. The county’s resolution outlines the specific responsibilities of the board and the county executive and gives more duties to the county clerk and the county comptroller, both of whom are independently elected officials.

In addition, the county board’s reform would:

  • Reduce supervisors’ pay 20% from $50,679 to $40,543 with the term beginning April 2016; the state bill would reduce supervisors’ pay to about $24,000 if county voters approved that change in a binding referendum on April 1, 2014.
  • Allow the board to ask the state Legislature to permit it to reduce the number of supervisors before the next redistricting process.
  • Cut the board’s budget by a minimum of 50%; the state bill would reduce it about 80%.
  • Permit supervisors and staff to seek information from departmental staff; the state bill only allows that discussion if the county executive grants his or her permission.
  • Give the board oversight of contracts over $100,000; the state bill allows the finance committee to give contracts between $100,000 and $300,000 a passive review while permitting the full board to vote on contracts over that amount.

The county resolution does not give the Milwaukee County executive the power to introduce legislation or call a special meeting of the board, legislative powers included in the state bill.

Supervisor Deanna Alexander, who has supported Abele’s efforts to reduce the board’s power at the state level, requested on Monday that the county committee delay voting on the resolution, saying it was rushed and an example of “bad governance.”

But Supervisor Peggy Romo West said that any blame for the rushed nature of the measure could be chalked up to the state’s actions.

“They essentially have a gun to our head,” Romo West said. 

No other member supported Alexander’s motion to delay a vote and she was alone in her opposition to the resolution.

Alexander and Taylor voted against a proposal to formally oppose AB 85/SB 95; five committee members voted in favor.


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