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Milwaukee Residents Tell County Supervisors to Remember Needy, Public Good

Vehicle registration fee is proposed to stave off deep cuts

Nov. 4, 2009
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A packed room at the Washington Park Senior Center gave all 19 Milwaukee County supervisors an earful for more than three hours on Monday night about the tight 2010 county budget, taxes and critical services for the needy.

If passed in its current form, the supervisors’ amended budget would increase the property tax levy 0.43%, the lowest increase in six years, and add a $20 vehicle registration fee for county car and truck owners. Without the extra fee, property taxes would increase 3.85%.

The county board estimates that a city of Milwaukee home, assessed at $150,000, would see the county’s portion of the property tax decrease by $12.83 compared to last year, if the fee is included.

The Finance and Audit Committee deliberated for weeks to fill a $32 million hole in the budget presented by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who structured his budget around $41 million of wage and benefit concessions that had not been negotiated by his administration and union employees.

The clear majority at Monday’s budget hearing was in favor of preserving critical county services and employees, as well as the vehicle fee, which was approved by the Finance and Audit Committee last week.

That fee, set to begin March 1, 2010, is expected to generate $9 million per year. That extra revenue must be used for cash-starved transit and paratransit services, but it would free up funds for other county operations.

The board intends to repeal the fee if the state authorizes another dedicated funding source for county transit.

In a referendum last November, Milwaukee County voters had approved a 1-cent sales tax increase to cover transit, the parks and cultural assets and provide property tax relief. Gov. Jim Doyle favors a half-cent sales tax increase for transit only, but that has not been approved by the state Legislature.

Barbara Beckert, director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, supported the fee, saying it would cost drivers less than $2 a month, or “pennies a day” for vital services.

Speaking in opposition to the fee was Jim Tolkan, president of the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee Inc. (ADAMM), who said the fee was “extremely regressive” because it would apply to car owners no matter what their income. He said it would have a negative impact on auto sales, sales tax, income and income tax for auto dealers.

Care for the Needy

Testimony from advocates for seniors, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, ex-offenders, public transit and the parks and pools urged the supervisors to maintain the safety net for the county’s neediest residents during a severe economic downturn.

Mary Ryan of Hunger Task Force received a huge round of applause when she stressed the need for the farm at the House of Correction, which produces 350,000 pounds of food per year for the hungry.

“You feed the baseline first,” Ryan said.

Many speakers mentioned the essay written by John Gurda in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which he praised previous generations of Milwaukeeans who supported the public good over private gain, and chastised those who “demean” or “demonize” public employees.

“The critics of local government crow whenever tax rates are cut or payrolls are reduced,” Gurda wrote. “In my view, that’s like bragging about how much you haven’t fed your child or cheering while your house burns down. These are our sidewalks and sewers, our police officers and firefighters, our parks and pools that suffer when budgets are cut.”

Patty Yunk, director of public policy at District Council 48 of AFSCME, called on supervisors to heed Gurda’s warning and provide wise leadership on the budget.

“Do you county supervisors have the courage?” she asked. “We hope so.”

Wage and Benefits Concessions

In addition to the $9 million to be generated by the vehicle registration fee, the Finance and Audit Committee had approved $15 million in wage and benefits concessions to be negotiated with county unions. The supervisors noted that the proposed concessions would be “a more credible approach for labor negotiations” than the $41 million package proposed by Walker.

The supervisors propose eliminating step salary increases for 2010, adopting eight furlough days, decreasing pension contributions, changing overtime rules, and requiring employees to pay more for health care coverage.

Like Walker’s proposals, the supervisors’ concessions have not been approved by the major county unions. Yunk told the Shepherd on Tuesday that AFSCME has not even received a request to meet to discuss them and that the county has asked for an extension until Nov. 30 to formulate its proposal.

Monday’s budget hearings come on the heels of last week’s layoff drama. After finding a $3 million deficit in the Behavioral Health Division budget—which hadn’t been reported by administrator John Chianelli until last week—Walker announced that up to 200 employees would receive layoff notices by the end of the week. But department heads came up with enough money to keep those employees working—at least for now—and the layoff notices were rescinded just hours after they were sent on Friday.

The county’s Finance and Audit Committee will hold its final budget meeting on Wednesday and the full board will vote on it next Monday. It then goes to Walker for his approval.

Walker did not attend Monday’s public hearing. Instead, he held a rally in Pewaukee for supporters of his gubernatorial run.


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