First of all, let me say I am optimistic about Milwaukee County’s future. The vetoes I cast (Tuesday) were not because I’m battling the County Board. I am battling against the reality that Milwaukee County finds itself in a fight to keep businesses and families from leaving because our taxes are too high.
And while I have great hopes for this county, I know those hopes cannot be realized if we give in to the notion that we need to raise more money through taxes to drive economic development. I believe quite the opposite, we need to take less.
Look at what’s at stake with the MillerCoors merger. Do we really believe that more taxes create the best economic climate possible to influence that decision? And what about the American Bowling Congress? Will the County Board’s suggested tax increases push that decision over the edge?
I would love to see commercials that invite businesses to Milwaukee because Milwaukee is good for business. But we can’t send out those kinds of messages, because we keep raising taxes. Milwaukee shouldn’t be in the position of having to ask corporations to stay. But we are. And that’s why I’m vetoing the items in the County Budget.
The budget, as passed, maintained most of the provisions included in the budget I submitted to you in October. Specifically, as adopted, the Board maintained key public safety provisions contained in my Recommended Budget, including full support for the Sheriff’s Targeted Enforcement, Drug Enforcement and Expressway Patrol units, additional funding for law enforcement equipment and Airport security, better monitoring of Huber inmates through the use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) equipment, increased funding for the Firearm Offender Supervision program and increased funding for the County’s Emergency Medical Services system. In regard to the GPS initiative, I welcome and support the County Board’s recommendation to engage the Community Justice Council Steering Committee and to retain additional Correction Officer positions in order to phase in the initiative.
Public safety is a priority in this budget, and so is making Milwaukee County an affordable place to live, work, learn and retire. Recently it was noted that the cost of electricity, fuel, gas, groceries and medicine had gone up. The conclusion was that the amount government collects from the taxpayers should go up too. I agree with the assessment of costs, but disagree with the outcome. Costs are going up and that is all the more reason why we have to be mindful of what our residents and employers can afford.
The reaction of taxpayers at the MPS budget meeting should remind us that most people feel we already pay too much to the government. The budget I return to the County Board today not only avoids an increase – it actually provides a slight decrease in the property tax levy.
Keeping residents here in their homes and attracting new residents is good. So is keeping and attracting jobs to our county. Recent census estimates show that even the City of Milwaukee is adding more residents.
Economic growth is important. Last year, we saw more than $1.1 billion in new construction throughout Milwaukee County. To further that growth – and to make the case for businesses like Miller Brewing to stay here – we must hold the line on taxes, which will lower their cost of doing business in our region.
Controlling the tax burden can be done while also ensuring that we continue to provide core services – the kinds of services that make us proud to live in Milwaukee County. Our budget, with these vetoes, seeks to provide these services in new and innovative ways that are more cost effective.
A good example of rethinking how we provide services is in the parks. My original budget would replace a wave of entry-level, year-round parks workers with funding for seasonal employees. This plan would protect the taxpayers by saving money but also protects the parks by adding nearly 20,000 more hours of labor. My vetoes include a return to this money-saving way to get more work done in the parks.
We maintain the new funding for parks maintenance and add it to the $12.9 million I included to improve our parks system. We begin work on a new aquatics center at Lincoln Park, install new playground equipment, improve our parkways, build new splash pads, upgrade trails and fix areas of the lakefront.
Our budget also maintains funding for the cultural institutions and provides infrastructure improvements at the zoo.
In the area of transportation, our budget maintains all of our bus and ParaTransit routes. It includes no increase in the cost of ParaTransit rides or the cost of passes for frequent users of the transit system. While the state is still providing considerably less than the historical level of support, there was some help in the latest budget. We used that funding to support our bus system.
Major improvements continue at General Mitchell International Airport. In September, the airport broke the monthly record for passengers and is on pace to once again break the annual passenger record. A national travel magazine recently named our airport as the fourth-best in the country. Our improvements are working.
And this budget includes a major investment in infrastructure. We improve county roadways and bridges. We also include funding to resurface a number of parkways.
The adopted budget also maintained my recommendations related to key human services initiatives, including increased funding of more than $1.7 million for the Behavioral Health Division to address patient and staff safety concerns caused by increased patient volume and the increased acuity of patients being served at the mental health complex.
The board also approved my supportive housing initiative that will provide an additional
$1 million for the construction of housing for individuals with mental illness. These efforts, combined with the creation of a new Housing Division in the Department of Health and Human Services and continued support for the recommendations of the Special Needs Housing Action Team, provide for meaningful, long-range action to address the housing needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
These are the things that make us proud to live in Milwaukee County and they continue to be priorities in this budget.
Scott Walker is the County Executive of Milwaukee County.