This morning, the Public Policy Forum released its latest report analyzing the fiscal predicament of Milwaukee County government. The report previews the county's 2011 budget scenario and also includes analysis of its five-year fiscal outlook.
In the past, we have raised sharp concerns about the county's fiscal condition and we have been critical of its inability to address its challenges strategically (see previous reports here and here). In this report, we give credit where it is due for some recent encouraging developments, including the county's success in reducing health care and incarceration costs and its creativity in developing public-private partnerships to support the parks and other functions. We also praise its new commitment to long-range fiscal forecasting and strategic planning.
Unfortunately, our assessment is that those positive steps have allowed the county to move the ball from its own 10-yard line to perhaps its own 20 or 25. It still has a ways to go before even reaching midfield (let alone the goal line). Meanwhile, it has gale-force winds in its face in the form of the region's and nation's larger economic challenges and the state's overwhelming budget difficulties.
Additional findings and observations from the report:
- Bridging the county's 2011 budget gap of $20-$45 million may require consideration of several stark options, including wholesale elimination of programs and services and/or closure of certain parks facilities or animal exhibits at the zoo.
- The county's five-year outlook forecasts continued growth in annual budget gaps, reaching $126 million in 2016. We modeled hypothetical scenarios in which the county would raise property taxes by 6.6% in each of the next five years or significantly curb the projected growth in wages and benefits, and those scenarios may not even cut the projected hole in half by the end of the five-year period (though they could produce considerable progress over a lengthier time frame).
- Even if the county employs a series of drastic options modeled in our report to address its structural gap, it will fail to get at other major non-budgeted problems, such as maintenance and capital needs in its parks, loss of stimulus dollars for its transit system, and a series of operational and physical concerns at its mental health complex.
The intention of this report is not to add to the gloom and doom that often surrounds Milwaukee County government, but to encourage county policymakers and civic leaders to continue their focus and recent progress on long-term financial solutions. We also suggest, once again, that a balanced approach employing service reductions, revenue enhancements, wage and benefit concessions and sale or lease of assets may be the best strategy for bringing Milwaukee County's financial situation back into balance.
The full report can be accessed here.