Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's statement (as reported in today's Journal Sentinel) that he will not request federal stimulus funds already has generated considerable reaction from other elected officials and in the blogosphere, and likely will continue to do so. While taking sides in the ideological debate over the need for and composition of a stimulus package is not the purpose of this piece (see previous Milwaukee Talkie blogs on stimulus here and here), my two cents - based on the Forum's previous research on county government - is simple: something must happen soon to address Milwaukee County's pressing infrastructure needs.
Our report last May on the county's transit funding crisis outlined how the imminent need to purchase 150 new buses (at a cost of approximately $56 million) could soon require the county to reduce transit service by up to 30%. Meanwhile, our analysis of county-owned parks and cultural institutions concluded that:
Major maintenance and basic infrastructure repair needs are significant and growing at each of the county-owned assets, with the exception of the Milwaukee County Historical Society headquarters, which is in the final stages of a major renovation. Among the more significant deferred maintenance/infrastructure needs assessment totals are $10 to $15 million for the Milwaukee Public Museum, $5.5 to $8.5 million for the Milwaukee County Zoo (plus a $130 million capital improvements wish list), and $276.6 million in the Milwaukee County Parks.Many are quick to blame the county executive's position on tax increases for these infrastructure backlogs. A far less commonly understood and perhaps more important contributor, however, is the 2003 decision made by both the executive and county board to cap annual debt issuance for capital projects at approximately $30 million per year.
That decision was predicated on an equally important decision made that year to refinance approximately $100 million of long-term debt. The refinancing plan was structured in a manner that provided a significant near-term reduction in annual debt service payments (in order to generate operating budget relief), but that caused a spike in those payments in the out years. County policymakers prudently recognized that failure to control new debt in the interim would cause significant long-term problems, so they instituted an annual bonding cap. Today, an area of county fiscal affairs that is praised by bond rating agencies is its sound management and rapid repayment of its debt.
The catch, however, is that the policy to limit annual capital bonding did not necessarily reflect the county's infrastructure needs, was not accompanied by an analysis of those needs versus the resources available, and did not result in a plan to address the mismatch. That remains the problem today.
Are federal stimulus funds the solution to that problem? Probably not, given the depth of the county's needs and the uncertainty as to whether those needs even would be eligible for stimulus dollars.
But those who are taking options off the table that could at least help - and this goes for the county executive with regard to stimulus funds as well as supervisors who have rejected analysis of a sale or lease of General Mitchell Airport and closure of county pools - have an obligation to specify the realistic solutions they have in mind to comprehensively address the county's infrastructure needs and the legislative strategy they intend to pursue to implement those solutions.
Whether it's addressing the county's infrastructure repair backlog, solving its transit funding crisis, or figuring out how to fix or replace its aging mental health complex, it is time for less politicking and more real and honest consensus-building and planning.