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A Tale of Two Budgets in Milwaukee

The city’s and county’s budgets are a campaign issue

Nov. 25, 2009
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Milwaukee has two declared candidates for governor, and both are signing off on their budgets for 2010, budgets that will no doubt become campaign issues for both men.

Neither Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who just announced he’ll be a Democratic candidate, nor Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, running for the Republican nomination, were handed problem-free fiscal pictures going into this budget cycle. But how both men have handled their budgets—and the claims they’re making about them—are worlds apart.

First up, Barrett’s. Months ago, Barrett prepared city employees and taxpayers by telling them this budget was grim, the most difficult one he’d ever had to put together. Not only was the city—like other units of government and private businesses—facing a recession, increased demand for social services and high health care costs, but it also had to contend with a huge $49 million lump-sum pension contribution. Barrett proposed a 4.4% tax increase, along with fee increases, furloughs and belt tightening across the board. In the end, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a 4.1% property tax increase.

Walker has blasted Barrett’s tax increase, taunting him with the nickname “Tom the Taxer.”

“Me: no tax increase & no furloughs 4 Sheriff’s deputies,” Walker Tweeted on the messaging service Twitter.

But Walker’s “no tax increase” exists solely in Walker’s imagination. Yes, Walker had proposed a 2010 budget that did not increase taxes over last year. But in the end, the County Board approved a budget that raises taxes 2.18%—less than the city’s tax increase, but certainly not Walker’s campaign spin.

That isn’t the only difference between the two budgets.

Barrett and the Common Council crafted a 2010 budget that honors labor agreements negotiated with employees unions that combines a promise of no layoffs with a wage freeze and other concessions.

In contrast, the county budget is based on ignoring the binding labor agreements. In fact, Walker built his “no tax increase” budget around wage and benefits concessions that are not included in existing contracts with the county’s labor unions. That would have saved the county $32 million. After scuttling a tentative agreement similar to the one the city has honored with AFSCME and sustaining Walker vetoes of other union contracts, Milwaukee County supervisors came up with $17 million of wage and benefits concessions—but like Walker’s, this package hasn’t been approved by the unions.

In the end, the final county budget contains $17 million in “phantom revenue” as Patty Yunk, public policy director of AFSCME District Council 48 put it, from the imaginary labor concessions.

Yunk said the county is expected to present an offer by the end of the month. Until the county and its represented employees craft new agreements, the county has a multimillion-dollar hole in its budget.

“We’re not so nave to not know that there are some fiscal issues facing both the city and the county,” Yunk said. “The difference is that [in our] relationship with the city, they’re honorable.”


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