Monday, June 8, 2009

Some good news for Milwaukee County

The Forum has spent considerable time during the past year researching and framing the issues facing Milwaukee County government. We began with a comprehensive analysis of Milwaukee County's transit crisis last May, continued with a Viewpoint luncheon on the structure of county government, a survey on citizen views of the county and a comprehensive report on the condition of county-owned parks and cultural assets, and then honed in on the county's ominous fiscal issues with analyses of its 2009 budget and overall fiscal situation.

The picture we have painted is grim. The county is facing a huge structural deficit that has worsened with each year of inaction and that has reached the point of crisis in light of state budget woes and the impacts of the national recession. Moreover, while citizens as of a year ago largely were satisfied with county services, mounting maintenance, repair and replacement backlogs threaten the quality of several critical county institutions and functions.

But there's also a sunnier side to county government, which the Forum will salute at our 17th annual Salute to Local Government on June 18. Our panel of judges has selected Milwaukee County programs or initiatives for four out of five program awards this year (the Village of Bayside will receive the other, while the City of Milwaukee is a joint recipient with the county for one award). A description of those award winners (plus individual award winners Ralph Voltner and Christine Nuernberg) can be found by clicking here. To sign up to attend, click here.

The county award winners illustrate the broad range of services provided by county government and the varied governance of its functions. One award will go to the county's judicial branch for an innovative self-help center in the courts; another will go to the parks for the public-private partnership that paved the way for the remarkable comeback of Bradford Beach; a third will go to the county executive and the county's housing division for their intergovernmental partnership with the city that has produced dozens of new housing units for poor persons with mental illness; and a fourth will be presented to the Code of Ethics study committee, an initiative spearheaded by county supervisor Joe Rice to re-write the county's ethics code that also was led by county legal and board staff and private sector members.

The lesson here is that even governments in severe fiscal distress and tinged with controversy have diligent and creative people working for them who are admirably playing the cards they have been dealt. In fact, the need for innovation and transparency - two attributes recognized by the Salute - is most acute when dollars are limited and cynicism is rampant. Congratulations to all our award winners for demonstrating that good government does exist in these trying times, when it is needed more than ever.

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