Monday, October 17, 2011

Priority-setting at the Milwaukee County Courthouse

In the Public Policy Forum's annual review of the Milwaukee County Recommended Budget - released this morning - we commend the administration’s efforts to establish clear priorities and make difficult decisions, but emphasize there is “still much work to be done” to address the county’s structural imbalance.

Clearly, this is a budget that does not shy away from difficult spending cuts, ranging from elimination of support for the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program and local arts groups, to substantial reductions in the Office of the Sheriff, to another sweeping call for health care savings from county workers. We caution that while the programmatic impacts and consequences of those decisions must be carefully deliberated, the county executive and his budget staff deserve credit for recognizing the need to cut somewhere.

Despite several positive strides in the budget to address the county’s structural problems, the report notes that significant challenges remain. It points out that the use of reprogrammed federal funds to avert substantial bus service reductions is a two-year solution at best, and that the county’s continued reliance on annual wage freezes and health care cuts as primary budget-balancing tools may not be sustainable.

In addition, the report cites the county’s glaring lack of reserves – an issue exacerbated by a recommendation to diminish its contingency fund – as giving pause to any notion that it has fully reconciled its fiscal shortcomings, or that 2012 will be the first year in recent memory devoid of the need to debate mid-year corrective actions to avoid running a deficit.

The report concludes by noting that debate is needed regarding the priorities and strategies selected in the recommended budget, as well as the “appropriate mix of revenue enhancements and spending cuts.” It says it is imperative, however, for the county board to follow the budget’s example of making difficult decisions and avoiding short-term gimmicks.

The full report can be accessed here. The Forum released a similar review of the 2012 City of Milwaukee budget on Friday.

No comments: