New Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy Shares His Agenda
Fair wages, Century City development, a regional heroin summit and arts support top his to-do list
In a surprise move at the end of January, Willie Hines announced that he was stepping down as president of the Milwaukee Common Council to work for the Housing Authority—immediately.
Perhaps less surprisingly, West Side Ald. Michael Murphy succeeded Hines as president. Murphy is best known as a thoughtful leader on the city’s budget and its pension fund, as well as a strong opponent of runaway freeway development that cuts through city neighborhoods. In this Shepherd Q&A, Murphy discusses the city’s financial health, its attempt to assert itself against a dominant state Legislature, and the importance of the arts and entertainment industry to Milwaukee’s vitality.
Shepherd: When I called you to set up this interview, you said you were swamped. What’s taking up all of your time these days?
Murphy: I’m working on organizing a summit on heroin in our region, putting together a five-county regional summit and organizing that and getting speakers and setting an agenda and finding funding for it. Let alone deal with my other responsibilities as president of the council and certainly the responsibilities of my own aldermanic district.
Shepherd: Did the former Common Council president, Willie Hines, give you a heads-up that he was leaving?
Murphy: No. He was pretty close-lipped about it. The people in his own office weren’t aware of it. Willie and I were very close in terms of working together. He did let me know the night before that he was going to be leaving.
Shepherd: What issues will a Murphy-led Common Council work on in the coming months?
Murphy: Keep in mind that you have 15 aldermen, 14 of my colleagues. Each one represents a distinct part of our city. They all have their own agendas. But every one of us is deeply committed to making our city grow and do well. My agenda, their agenda, is to help focus on what we think are our priorities.
Clearly, I think one of our top priorities is unemployment in our city, specifically the high unemployment rate of African American males in our community, and the high rate of incarceration of our citizens. A really frightening recent statistic is that one of every two African American males has been involved in the criminal court system by the time they are 30, which prohibits them from getting into employment. We need to change that course.
The other important issue is making sure that we maintain a healthy city. We had a terrible foreclosure crisis and the impact of the recession has been very hard on large metropolitan areas. We’re slowly seeing ourselves come out of that. We want to make sure there are options for the city to grow economically. We need a strong tax base; we need to take care of essential services.
The biggest item in our budget is the police department. We allocated additional resources in this year’s budget to the police department, but they constitute the largest portion. And making sure that those resources are used wisely. One thing I was proud to put in this year’s budget as an amendment was adding additional officers but also money to do a thorough public outreach survey to ascertain how the citizens feel about their police department—what they think we can do better to improve it. That hasn’t been done, ever. So I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that.
Another priority is working closely with both state and federal resources. A big portion of our budget is shared revenue. We’ve been really hurt by the cuts in the state shared revenue. Really, it’s happened under both parties, both Democratic and Republican, although a little bit harder recently. But both parties have cut aids not just to Milwaukee but to cities throughout the state of Wisconsin. So just trying to communicate to people—even if people may disagree with you politically, the reality is that as the city goes, so goes the state. It’s in the state’s best interests that the city does well.
Shepherd: So much of the conversation now is about income inequality and implementing a living wage or raising the minimum wage to combat it. What can the city do to encourage employers to treat their workers, especially low-wage workers, fairly?
Murphy: We are a large employer. We employ more than 7,000 people. We can set a good example. The city council sponsored years ago a living wage. I supported that. It shows that we haven’t harmed our ability to perform services for the citizens of Milwaukee and treat people with respect. Our national economy is based on 70% consumer spending. So when consumer spending drops, our economy drops. Paying people a fair wage and treating people with respect will help the economy to grow.
Shepherd: Since 2010, the state has really struck at local control, specifically at the city’s constitutionally granted home rule powers...
Murphy: It’s been an attack. It’s constant. Finally I’ve been seeing a little pullback, but not much. For example, even on the issue of the living wage, Assembly Speaker [Robin] Vos did come out and say well, we’ve got to let them have at least some ability to effectuate some change in their local government. I think that even he is realizing that the state has taken its authority too far.
We’re not giving up our fight. We think that home rule is incredibly important. It was granted to us by the state in the constitution and we are still continuing to litigate the issue of residency. And we’re looking at litigating other issues. The reality is that the state has a great deal of authority. By stripping us of our ability to manage our city, it hamstrings us.
For example, I did not support Act 10. But I did say that if you’re going to do Act 10, you’ve got to apply it to everybody and not pick winners and losers. A good example is that the public safety unions, the police and fire department, are exempt. They are 40% of my personnel but they are 60% of my costs. All of the burden of Act 10 falls on the other employees. So you divide and conquer your own workforce. Obviously, that’s one of the tenets of the governor’s strategy politically. Those are not my words.
Shepherd: Let’s talk about some of the big developments in the city—the Lakefront Gateway project, the Couture proposal, the NML tower, the 30th Street Corridor and Menomonee Valley revitalization. How can you ensure that all Milwaukeeans, not just the developers and elite, will benefit from these developments?
Murphy: We have a residency preference program, which I have supported in the past and which we have put into our contracts, certainly when the developers have received financial assistance, whether it's tax incremental financing (TIF) or some other program, where we require them to employ residents of the city of Milwaukee on those projects. I strongly support that. We know that people are trying to challenge that and get rid of that and we’re going to fight to keep that ability as part of our agreements.
I think our city has great, great opportunities going forward. One of the issues is the huge shift that’s going on demographically in our country—10,000 people a day turn 65. I think we can pick up a portion of them who now live in the suburbs in big homes and they’re older and they don’t want to take care of their property. What the city can offer is a beautiful environment with incredible arts and entertainment value. I think we should be able to capitalize on that and see young people who want to be Downtown where the action is.
With the 30th Street industrial corridor, people say, “You can never develop that.” The reality is, I was around when the Menomonee Valley was first being discussed and people would say there was no hope. Basically, that it was a sewer. Even Gov. Tony Earl proposed putting a prison there. And people were just turning their backs on it. But some people had more vision and said they could do something. It didn’t take overnight to get to that point. It takes a long time. But now hundreds and hundreds of jobs are being offered there—good-paying jobs—and we’ve spent a lot of resources, mainly marrying an industrial valley while recognizing the importance of the environment. I worked very hard on the Hank Aaron Trail and the Three Bridges Park. I think that’s an example of what we can replicate at Century City.
Shepherd: One state issue hits close to home for you—the proposed double-decker freeway that would go through Story Hill, your district.
Murphy: Once again, this is one of those really frustrating things. The state could save probably $200 million—$200 million—if they would back off on building a double-decker freeway. This is money that my daughter will end up paying for the rest of her life. My guess is that what the governor will do is instead of raising additional revenue through taxes he will just borrow the money. And the Republican Legislature doesn’t seem to be a check and balance on the executive branch and they will support it. It’s very frustrating because it will certainly have negative impacts on our city and we’re going to continue making our case and fight against it.
Shepherd: Anything else you want to share with Shepherd readers?
Murphy: As chair of the Arts Board, I was able to increase the funding this year for arts organizations. It’s one of those industries—and I use that term purposefully—people don’t understand how much the arts play a role in our economic engine and our city. It doesn’t get the attention of sports. You see MMAC spend a lot of time on BMO Harris Center and they’re paying some attention to the other cultural institutions. But the arts drive a lot of jobs in this city. I think we can do a better job of communicating that message and get greater support to those organizations. They are small businesses in many ways. When you look at Renaissance, Skylight—I’m not just talking about the Marcus Center—I’m talking In Tandem productions. And how many jobs these organizations create, let alone the culture that they add to the community. We need to look at them more as an industry and not be afraid to support them fully.