The city and county budgets proposed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele received mostly favorable reviews in analyses by the Milwaukee-based, nonpartisan Public Policy Forum.
Abele’s proposed budget for Milwaukee County, “offers another source of evidence that Milwaukee County is making substantial headway in its long and grueling march from perennial financial crisis to relative fiscal normalcy,” the Public Policy Forum report states. “The budget reflects the county’s remarkable progress in reducing health care expenditures and debt service obligations – two of the primary drivers of its long-term structural imbalance – by accommodating an unanticipated spike in its pension contribution with few service reductions and a flat property tax levy, while also providing a pay increase for employees. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable five years ago.”
As for the city budget proposed by Barrett, the Public Policy Forum report states, “the budget again avoids cuts to key services by reaping the continued benefits of earlier health care changes and squeezing additional savings from pension and risk management plans. As in previous years, we commend city leaders for their efforts to manage the budget in this responsible fashion.”
However, the Public Policy Forum raised some concerns about the city and county budget proposals.
Abele’s budget proposal for the county includes a $17 million drawdown from county reserves and reduces the sheriff’s budget by $9.8 million. There continues to be pressure on the county budget from pension fund liabilities and infrastructure needs. The county will struggle to accommodate those expenditure demands in light of a flat revenue picture and the likelihood that major health care savings by an earlier plan redesign soon will run their course, the Public Policy Forum report states.
For Barrett’s proposed budget, the Public Policy Forum report says beneficial fiscal circumstances that have eased pressure on the city’s finances in recent years may be running their course. Barrett’s budget proposal holds the line on taxes, includes modest fee increases and relies on health care savings from plan design changes in previous years to offset another year of flat revenue from the state’s shared revenue program.
“Health care savings and other annual benefit adjustments have become a necessity for the city as it continues to fight its way through a gauntlet of limited revenue sources,” the report states. “Whether city leaders can continue to generate annual savings in benefits and salaries after 2016 may be the key determinant as to whether the last few years of relative budget calm continue, or whether, instead, the city reverts back to the days of substantial workforce downsizing and the need to pit adequate funding for public safety versus cuts in other important functions.”
The Public Policy Forum reports on the proposed city and county budgets can be viewed at www.publicpolicyforum.org.