I had already planned on attending the "OUR Milwaukee" listening session being hosted by Supervisors David Bowen and Russell Stamper II. What I hadn't planned on was a whopper of a press conference announcing bold, broad and sweeping changes to the structure of county government.
The press conference was hosted by Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic; Supervisors Bowen, Stamper, Jason Haas, and Theo Lipscomb; State Representatives Mandela Barns and Evan Goyke; State Senator Tim Carpenter; and Mike Wilder of Wisconsin Jobs Now.
Here is the press release they issued with their conference announcing the changes:
MILWAUKEE COUNTY BOARD ANNOUNCES MAJOR BOARD REFORM OVERHAUL$2.75 Million Cut to Board Budget
(MILWAUKEE) – The Milwaukee County Board’s budget will be cut by 50 percent under a bold new set of initiatives proposed before an “Our Milwaukee County” listening session Thursday night.
The major initiative includes but is not limited to government streamlining, mandatory training for County Supervisors to clarify roles and responsibilities in County governance.
“This comprehensive package is the kind of bold reform our constituents asked for during the ‘OUR Milwaukee County’ sessions and various town hall meetings across the County,” said Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. “We’ve had listening sessions in more than half of the County, and Milwaukee County residents want to see reform done locally, not imposed on the County by the state Legislature. This is the one of the most significant and dramatic overhauls of Milwaukee County government in history, and this is what our constituents have demanded.
“We listened to everyone – county residents, state legislators and local officials – to create realistic Board reform. This package reflects that. It’s been said that we would never reform ourselves, that we would never cut our own salaries, and that we would never cut our budget. But this package demonstrates clearly that not only have we listened, we’ve acted with a commitment to true, realistic, locally generated reform.”
Dimitrijevic said that with seven new Board members “it is a new day for County government.”
“These reforms are proof that this is a new Board with a new outlook on reform,” she said. “We have a new chair, and seven of the 18 members of the Board are new. Everyone on the Board – new members and long-time Supervisors – is committed to locally generated change.”
Supervisors’ pay will be cut by 20 percent under the proposal, and the board budget would be cut $2.75 million, which could be used for transit, parks, mental health and other County services.
The reforms mean that beginning in 2016 supervisors pay would be reduced to about $40,000, and that the Chairperson’s salary would be less than that of the Waukesha County Board chairperson.
A majority of people who spoke at the “OUR Milwaukee County”
sessions said they favored reform, but not reform imposed on the County Board by the state Legislature, she said. Assembly Bill 85 would reduce the Board’s budget to .4 percent of the County tax levy while cutting Board staff by about 70 percent. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, would strip the Board’s ability to govern effectively, Dimitrijevic said.
“The fact is, the County Board matters, and our constituents care deeply about it,” she said. “They want to be part of the reform process that is taking place on County governance.
“This reform package is real reform generated locally, and we believe our constituents will agree that this package is far preferable to one imposed by the state. There is more than one way to reform, and the most successful way is locally.”
Among other reforms announced were:
- Definition and clarification of roles and responsibilities of both the Board and the County Executive, which agree the Board is a policy-making body and the County Executive is manager of day-to-day operations, with mandatory training for supervisors.
- Creation of an independent Office of Intergovernmental Relations, which will report to both the County Executive and the County Board Chair.
- Changes to contracting policy.
- Requirement of an efficiency audit for all levels of County government and use of a mediator to enforce those efficiencies. Recommendations for additional efficiency measures in governance and operations. Follow-through on the efficiency audit for additional governance measures and County-wide operational efficiency measures.
- Transfer of the Community Development Business Partners department from the Board to the independent office of the County Comptroller.
- There would be no future pension benefit provided to Supervisors unless they choose to pay the full-cost beginning with the 2016 term
“Everything is on the table,” Dimitrijevic said. “We have said that this new board is committed to reform, and we have presented a bold new look for the County Board. We believe this is what the people of Milwaukee County want – change on a local, not state, level.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in County governance. The people of Milwaukee County spoke, and we listened.”
The supervisors said further details would be forthcoming, and there would be a public hearing on Monday afternoon regarding the proposed reform.
For what it's worth, I personally disagree with this. The Board's authority and salary is not out of line with any other county in the state. It's a dollar per person represented, just like every other county. And for anyone to argue that the county's situation is the Board's fault is laughable. If we did not have a full time board, things would have gotten much worse in much less time.
But as much as I disagree with this, I understand the need for it.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and his fellow plutocrats at the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) have been plotting this for months and had a head start on the messaging.
The Board made up considerable ground with "OUR Milwaukee" by doing something that Abele never thought of doing - they listened to the people.
And the people were pissed. Every listening session has had the basic same theme from the vast majority of attendants. People, whether they felt there should be some sort of reform or not, felt that any reform needs to come from Milwaukee.
Case in point: At tonight's hearing, there was a disabled Vietnam veteran who told how he walked a half mile to get to the nearest bus stop and rode for an hour to get there. His statement was that "Milwaukee needs to stay in Milwaukee and Madison needs to stay the hell out!"
Like I said, the supervisors listened to what the people said. (Note to Chris Abele - that's what democracy looks like!) And then the Board acted on what the people were saying and came up with the above-mentioned reforms.
Unfortunately, Abele has already dismissed the reform offhandedly and without even seeing it:
Abele said late Thursday that the plan announced by Dimitrijevic was an acknowledgment that county reform is needed. But he said he remains supportive of the state legislation.Abele's indifference to the people's will shows us that Abele is not interested in real reform. Rather, this is nothing but an unadulterated power grab by Abele and the plutocratic GMC, which wrote and funded the bill. And more and more people are seeing this every day, and becoming angrier about it.
"There's nothing about this that makes me any less supportive of the Sanfelippo bill," Abele said.
In fact, it can be argued that Abele is afraid of real reform.
In the past two years, Abele has forced county workers to take anywhere from a 10% to 20% pay cut as he doubled the cuts called for by Act 10.
Now the Board is cutting their pay by 20% and their operating budget by half.
And what is Abele offering? Not a damn thing.
In fact, as every other county employee and elected official is taking cuts up to 20%, Abele has been lavishing his staff with huge raises.
At the beginning of 2012, he gave more than half of his staff big raises, even as he was cutting everyone else's pay:
The largest raise was to his Chief of Staff, Amber Moreen, who he had brought with him from his personal charity group, Argosy Foundation. She got nearly $40,000 more per year, translating to more than a 50% raise.
When was the last time you got a 50% raise. Hell, when was the last time you got a 50 cent raise?
Abele's generosity to his cronies was an ongoing pattern. He had given a huge raise to Sue Black, even though she had just gotten a raise a few months before. Then he fired her for unknown reasons.
As recently as last fall, he had given another aide, Tia Torhorst, a 20% raise. Torhorst is the woman who wrote the letter endorsing Abele's power grab. But I'm sure that's just coincidence. Even despite that big raise, Torhorst left the county for unknown reasons four months later.
Abele's hypocrisy was shown when he defended his largess with our tax dollars:
Abele said he's tried to get the best people he could for sometimes hard-to-fill county jobs, at reasonable pay levels. The higher pay awarded to some managers reflects greater expertise or experience for the posts than their predecessors had, he said.
"The issue is this: At the end of the day, voters and taxpayers are probably more interested in the outcome than the specifics" of who gets paid how much, he said. In other words, he'll be judged on how well the county operates rather than any specific pay decision, he said.
These people were so vital to the county that many of them are gone, either getting axed by Abele for no known reasons or fleeing from his tyrannical ways while the getting was good. And no, the county isn't in such better shape that it would justify such extravagant raises.
And since the GMC's argument in cutting the board's salary and budget was to make it on a par with other counties, it should be pointed out that Abele is the receiving one of the highest salaries in the state. Furthermore, by the end of his term, he will be eligible for the lucrative pension that he is always decrying.
Any meaningful reform would require that his salary, pension and operating budget be cut at least as much as the Board's. After all, as they are fond of pointing out, there isn't as much for him to do as there was for past executives.
This point is even more true when one considers that most of the fiscal problems and corruption has come out of the executive's office anyway.
In summary, it is unfortunate that it has come to pass that the Board members have to make these sacrifices, but it is what the people are calling for. But any real reform will have to take all parts of the county into consideration - including the county executive's office - and not just the Board.
If Abele was indeed serious about his goal being to reform county government and not an overreaching power grab, he would be wise to agree to this. By refusing to, he shows himself to be a hypocrite, an emperor wannabe, and small, petty man.
The choice is now up to Abele. But as he considers this decision, he would be best advised to remember that he works for the people, not the GMC.