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Milwaukee County Budget Conflicts

Nov. 6, 2013
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Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele started something really ugly when he conspired with Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators to destroy the power and authority, not to mention the paychecks, of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

But the petty vindictiveness of the current board in response doesn’t exactly encourage anyone who cares about good government to consider the board a responsible check on the county executive.

David Cullen, a former state legislator, has run the board’s finance committee hearings on the county budget in an abrasive, insulting manner that seems more interested in punishing Abele and any department head or staff member associated with him than in pursuing good public policy.

The board has even begun embracing the arrogant extremism of Sheriff David Clarke based solely on their appreciation of Clarke’s childish middle school taunts of Abele, including the sheriff’s crude public allusion to the size of his genitalia.

The irony is, until siding with the sheriff against Abele, the board also was taking serious steps to rein in Clarke’s budget excesses and irresponsible management.

Abele simply brought his own scrutiny to the sheriff’s unrestrained budget increases under former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

In the decade before Abele, the sheriff’s budget rose 61% while the parks budget had no increases and county transit funding declined 8%, according to an analysis by journalist Bruce Murphy for the website Urban Milwaukee.

But it was county board leadership that was responsible for the most serious policy change affecting the operation and expenses of the sheriff’s department when the board removed administration of the House of Correction and other correctional programs from Clarke’s control.

In fact, you can ignore the big numbers Clarke throws around on right-wing radio to claim Abele is devastating his law enforcement budget.

Of a reduction of $7.7 million for the sheriff detailed in Abele’s executive budget, $5.4 million is the result of the board putting the House of Correction and other operations under professional management instead of the sheriff.

With those costs removed, the sheriff’s budget would be reduced only 2.3%. It would still take 22 cents out of every dollar paid in county property taxes.


Parks Patrol an Issue

Deciding that Clarke, the enemy of their enemy, is now their friend, the board’s finance committee voted for the second straight year to reject Abele’s common-sense plan to save half a million dollars patrolling county parks by contracting with the Milwaukee Police Department and suburban police.

Consolidating services to reduce costs and increase public safety constitutes good government. But the board isn’t interested in serving the public better at a lower cost if the idea comes from Abele.

After the board rejected the transfer of park policing last year, the board added $3.3 million to Clarke’s budget for more park patrols, but the sheriff apparently spent it elsewhere.

In a memo to the board, Abele pointed out that Clarke reported his deputies had spent only 4,365 hours patrolling parks this year, which translates into fewer than three full-time deputies.

Embarrassed, Clarke hastily recalculated and sent a new, improved report to the board claiming his deputies devoted more than 50,000 hours to park patrols. If any board members are gullible enough to believe that, he probably should have jacked it up a few hundred thousand more hours.

After going without personal protection his first two years in office, Abele for the first time sought funds for security based on recent threats.

Instead of showing any serious concern for the safety of a top public official in a gun-crazy, violent age, the committee reduced Abele’s $400,000 request to $100,000.

In an even crueler twist, supervisors turned the protection over to Clarke, who has publicly ridiculed Abele’s need for security. Who knows? Maybe the sheriff will assign some of his imaginary park patrols.

During the budget hearings, Abele’s department heads and staff members were interrupted, cut off and talked over. 

In a move calculated to discourage talented professionals from ever working for county government, the finance committee took a meat axe to the salaries of seven of Abele’s department heads and aides.

Ignoring legal advice that they were probably violating state law, the committee lopped tens of thousands of dollars off the salaries of Abele’s principal department heads and assistants.

But, of course, all those folks were lucky they weren’t tossed out in the street.

The board previously fired the first African American woman to head the corporation counsel’s office because Abele supported her and refused to approve his choice of an experienced professional to oversee reorganization of county mental health services.  

A whole lot of people objected to Walker and the state Legislature meddling in local government by reducing the county board’s ability to serve as a check on the county executive.

But when board members start wrecking their own house in revenge, they destroy their own case that they’re providing any kind of responsible oversight.


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