Milwaukee leaders make case for more state funding

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Key city and county leaders addressed the Greater Milwaukee Committee this week about the need for more state funding for Milwaukee.

A panel of key city and county leaders addressed the Greater Milwaukee Committee about the need for more state funding for Milwaukee.

Among the leaders were Public Policy Forum president Rob Henken, Mayor Tom Barrett, Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee County Board Chair Theo Lipscomb, Sr.

Topics brought up in the discussion included the city and county’s financial challenges and budget needs and Abele’s proposal for a $60 county wheel tax.

Milwaukee as a return on Madison’s investment

Both Barrett and Abele emphasized that Milwaukee is no longer a drain on state funding as it may have been 10 or 15 years ago.

“The narrative for a very long time that I heard from folks in the state was ‘hey Milwaukee—it’s that sucking sound.’ A cursory glance at the statistics will inform anyone that a better metaphor is a gushing sound,” said Abele about Milwaukee’s positive impact on the Wisconsin economy.

Barrett discussed the visible economic growth throughout the city—Northwestern Mutual, BMO Harris, new apartment buildings and small businesses—that contribute to the state’s overall increase in tax revenue.


“The state of Wisconsin is seeing an increase in revenue, we are generating a significant amount of that right here in the City of Milwaukee,” Barrett said.

Since Milwaukee is generating more tax revenue for the state, Milwaukee officials say the city should to receive more shared revenue in return from Madison.

“We would like our dividend,” Barrett said. “We would like our share of the shared revenue.”

Milwaukee is “a net exporter of income for the region and state,” Hamilton said.

Abele argued strongly that state government should increase its investment in Milwaukee because the city’s large economic base makes it the best place to try to grow the state’s economy. He says Milwaukee now has, “more momentum than we’ve ever had,” in terms of economic development.

“We need all of us together to do a better job of sharing this information,” said Abele, “If we do that, I think we will be able to have a lot more leverage when we have those discussions (about state funding for Milwaukee) in Madison.”

Growing police budget

According to city data, the 2017 Milwaukee Police Department budget exceeds the city’s tax levy. The city’s 2017 budget allocates about $300 million to MPD while the current tax levy stands at about $260 million.

Gov. Scott Walker has touted taxpayer savings from the Act 10 collective bargaining restrictions for public employees in the state. But Act 10 does not apply to police and fire departments. As a result, Milwaukee’s police budget increases annually, Barrett said.

Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton

As public safety becomes a greater concern for city residents and a higher priority for city leaders, the panel agreed that the city needs more state support—specifically for public safety.

“If (state officials) were able to actually recognize this fiscal challenge that we have and recognize that it is that portion of our budget that we are having the most problem with, then they should make specific contributions to the City of Milwaukee to help us pay for our public safety,” Hamilton said.

He suggested levying a sales or income tax as two ways the state could provide more public safety funding to Milwaukee.

The impact of public safety

“We can’t have a community meeting without the issue of public safety coming up and it’s not because of a lack of investment into public safety on the city’s part. It’s the inability to keep up with the need given the structural deficits that we have,” Hamilton said.

If the state were to fill the city’s need for public safety funding support, Barrett said he could increase police presence on the streets.

With already five homicides in the City of Milwaukee within the year’s first week, Barrett said his priority is strengthening the police force rather than just maintaining it.

“We are fighting simply to maintain the strength that we have right now and that’s a challenge,” he said.

Wheel tax

Abele’s 2017 budget includes a proposed $60 wheel tax, or vehicle registration fee, to provide public transit funding and road repairs. It would generate $27.1 million annually.

In November, County Board Chair Lipscomb called for a referendum on the tax as a response to constituents’ concerns.

“I do think that the (wheel tax) discussion was appropriate, I just think it caught people by surprise,” Lipscomb said. “The proposal came up abruptly and did leave a whole lot of time for public input.”

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

Abele argued that while the public’s input is important, the broader issue is not whether Milwaukee residents support a wheel tax increase. Instead, it is whether they support a funding source that would generate enough revenue to compete with similar Midwest cities.

“Or do you support the sort of cuts that would be involved?” Abele said. “So think about bus fares going not from two (dollars) to four, more like bus fares going to seven and that still doesn’t catch us up.”

Milwaukee County residents will be able to answer a nonbinding question about the proposed wheel tax during April’s spring election.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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