Friday, July 1, 2011

Time to consider a countywide comptroller in Milwaukee?

The announcement earlier this week by longtime City of Milwaukee Comptroller Wally Morics that he will not run for re-election in 2012 creates a vacancy in one of our region's most important, but least understood, elected public offices.

The comptroller essentially functions as the chief financial officer for city government, exercising fiscal control, per the city Web site, "over the activities of approximately 40 city departments and agencies." Perhaps most important, the comptroller's office sets the tone for fiscal responsibility and accountability in city government. It does so by establishing accounting policies and procedures for all city departments; overseeing the city's debt portfolio (which exceeds $750 million); administering all federal and state grants; reviewing all proposed development projects involving city economic development tools; conducting audits of internal city functions; and certifying all revenue figures used in the annual city budget.

In an August 2009 report, the Public Policy Forum found that despite serious fiscal challenges, the city "by most any financially well run." In many respects, that is attributable to a chief financial officer position that not only is specifically charged with ensuring that the city's finances are responsibly, accurately, and transparently managed, but also one that, because of its independently elected status, can do so without fear of recrimination from other city leaders.

The Forum also has opined, in several of its recent reports on the finances of Milwaukee County government, that the absence of a similarly charged independent controller's office in that government has contributed to its financial difficulties. Consequently, in light of Mr. Morics' impending retirement, is it worth considering whether the elected city comptroller should be transformed into an elected countywide position that would fulfill the same fiscal oversight functions for both city and county government?

Admittedly, questions of home rule, statutory and logistical issues, and turf concerns would make such a proposition difficult to implement, particularly in time for the April 2012 election cycle. But among the potential benefits of such a move - in addition to giving the county the type of independent fiscal oversight it has long needed - would be the following:

  • Combining certain city and county accounting and internal audit functions within one office could promote greater quality and efficiency, and perhaps save money by allowing for staff reductions and/or merged financial management and payroll systems.

  • An independent office overseeing the financial affairs of both governments would be able to provide greater perspective on regional infrastructure needs and priorities, and how they should be funded. This is counter to the existing state of affairs, in which each government issues long-term debt for capital projects without knowledge or concern about the other's borrowing decisions.

  • This could be a significant initial step toward far greater city-county cooperation, as having common fiscal policies and procedures and a unified set of accountants could make it much easier to consolidate other services down the road. The professionals working in a consolidated comptroller's office also could be a source for new ideas on how to consolidate other "back office" functions, such as information technology, human resources, health care administration, procurement, etc.

  • A joint city-county comptroller's office might even be able to provide accounting, audit, payroll or financial management services to other Milwaukee County municipalities at a price that would save money for the municipalities.

Again, while this idea would require substantial additional research and deliberation, doing so would be consistent with the shared services and consolidation discussions that are occurring with increasing frequency among the new county executive and local municipal leaders. If ever there were a time when such an idea should be considered, it would appear to be now.

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