You may not fully sense it, but the State Assembly took action last week that could and should resolve many years of infighting and paralysis on major regional projects. When it comes to parks and transit, there have been decades of debate over regional cost sharing, new governance models, and tough questions of who pays and how much is enough. In Milwaukee County, and the entire metropolitan area of southeastern Wisconsin, there are two areas of public policy that have captivated the voting public, the media, and other stakeholders in the community: transportation and parks.
Leaders at all levels of government: Chairman of Transportation and Public Works Michael Mayo, County Supervisor Chris Larson, Senators Lena Taylor and Jeff Plale have stood up to offer solutions and urged their colleagues to move forward on these issues. These leaders are backed by numerous community leaders, neighborhood associations, and influential civic organizations that have added their voices to the debate. All of us, despite our differences from time to time, are shoulder to shoulder in trying to build a regional framework for important public priorities. Rather than pit one local unit of government after another, or endlessly point fingers between the Capitol and City Hall, we have done our best to move forward with positive solutions.
With the state budget currently being worked on in Madison, now is the time to make some decisions. The following points help set the right framework for upcoming budget votes:
1. Transit and modernizing our transportation system must be priority number one. That means fix what you’ve got before you start new projects. The State Assembly version of the budget that passed last week includes a 0.65-percent sales tax option. Of that, up to 0.15 percent can be allocated to help pay for police and fire department costs throughout Milwaukee County. The remaining 0.5% must be used for transit.
2. At a minimum, the Assembly actions would provide up to $65 million in property tax relief and completely remove the bus system from the tax levy paid by all homeowners and businesses in Milwaukee County. That’s a huge step forward and would pave the way for commuter rail expansion and the city of Milwaukee’s streetcar system.
3. We must not ignore the county park systems and the referendum voters that supported their funding. That means funding transit first, demonstrating we can provide property tax relief while lowering fares and expanding service for transit, then finding a solution that preserves our parks and expands recreational options into the rest of the 21st century.
4. However, transit must come before parks – (not instead of, but before). Politics and government involve tough work and setting priorities and making decisions. Ironically, the Parks People in recent years pushed hard for State legislation to take the Parks out of Milwaukee County hands and into an independent district that would have had the power to raise the property tax. Furthermore, most November referendum support on the 1-percent came in areas of the city of Milwaukee with strong Presidential turnout and frankly, outside of the Lakeshore most County Parks sit in suburban areas that voted against the sales tax.
5. Transit moves people who cannot drive or choose not to drive. Either way, transit riders contribute to the economy and help make this a great community to live, work and raise a family. They have taken it in the chin whether the devil is in higher fuel costs or petty politics. Enough is enough!
6. Transit is part of a metropolitan network of roads, trains, bike paths, and air and water ports. Look at any thriving metro area in the United States, and you will find state-of-the-art public infrastructure: airports, streetcars, high speed trains, and user-friendly connections so people are not forced into one option, or none at all. Schools, parks, shopping, hospitals, museums, convention centers will not grow, let alone survive, without upgraded transportation.
7. Citizens and taxpayers earn more money and enjoy a healthier quality of life when transit investments are expanded. In other words, we do this right and we get it done sooner than later, there will be future economic growth and more stable local government finances to replenish and sustain our great parks system.
8. People who want their cake and to eat it too cannot keep that diet going much longer. There are some in Milwaukee County who want the beautiful picnic, swimming, or day of golf but do not want to pay for anyone else’s enjoyment but their own. And, with slight exaggeration, there are those on the County Board who want the benefits of a 1% tax increase without accomplishing the heavy lifting of voting on their own turf.
We have a one-time opportunity, despite a wicked economy and dangerous revenue projections, to help get something right. Let’s deliver $65 million in property tax relief to Milwaukee County residents. Let’s take the bus system off the property tax now and forever. Let’s join with our regional partners in Racine and Kenosha to help build the economic infrastructure that brings more jobs to Wisconsin and a brighter future for our families.
And, let’s send a collective message to the naysayers. We can do this, Milwaukee. No matter where we live, what our background, or how much money we have, when we work together, there is no stopping our progress. Yes we can Milwaukee. Yes we will.
State. Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) represents the Ninth District.