Report: County’s infrastructure backlog could total more than $400 million by 2023

Suggests sales tax, liquidating assets could be part of solution

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 04:16 pm

Milwaukee County needs a new funding source to address a backlog of infrastructure projects that could total more than $400 million in the next four years, according to a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report. 

The report, which is the fifth in a five-part series on the county and city of Milwaukee’s infrastructure needs, contends those governments need to raise revenue, while also trimming their mounting lists of infrastructure repair and replacement project needs.

In particular, the report suggests a new county sales tax could be a starting point for addressing some of the capital needs.

“A clear takeaway is that a new funding source is required to appropriately address the county’s (and quite possibly the city’s) infrastructure needs,” the report said.

An additional 0.5% sales tax in Milwaukee County would generate about $79 million annually, the report said. Any increase in the sales tax by Milwaukee County or its municipalities would require authorization from the state.

The report said the county will also need to consider liquidating some of its assets.

“Previous discussions among county leaders about trimming their inventory of capital assets have been difficult, which is understandable given that no supervisor wishes to see a pool or ball field eliminated from a park in his or her district (or turned over to another entity),” the report said. However, these discussions must be reinvigorated, particularly with regard to assets that do not involve mandated services.”

According to the report, some of the most significant infrastructure needs include:

  • Replacing Milwaukee County’s aging fleet of more than 400 buses on an appropriate cycle, which would cost $13.3 million annually, exhausting nearly one-third of the county’s borrowing capacity.
  • The city’s plan to increase the pace of water main replacement, which would cost $20 million annually. Meanwhile, replacing 76,000 lead service lines may cost hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades.
  • Fifty-seven percent of Milwaukee’s streets were rated in poor or fair condition in 2016, prompting the need for dozens of potential major reconstruction projects within the next 10 to 15 years.

In short, the report said, the region’s infrastructure is old, and local government financial structures are no longer equipped to bear the cost of repairs and replacement.

“Local government officials can continue to shrug their shoulders and take care of as much work as is deemed affordable each year, which will never be enough to keep the list of needed projects from growing,” the report said. “State policymakers can continue to insist that this is a locally created problem that merits a locally derived solution. The preferred approach, however, would be for leaders from both levels of government to collectively recognize that an effective response is critical to the economic health of the state’s largest metro area and to work collaboratively to get the job done.”

Researchers with the policy forum have been studying the infrastructure issues since 2016. Previous reports in the series have explored the need for non-traditional funding options to pay for a planned $345 million replacement of the Milwaukee County Safety Building in downtown Milwaukee and the insurmountable backlog of capital requests from the county’s parks, recreational and cultural facilities.

To pare down its list of projects, the report suggests the county review its parks, recreation and cultural functions, which are among the few areas of discretionary capital spending for the county.

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