Thursday, July 31, 2008

Free to be you, Milwaukee

Free-market oriented Reason magazine has compiled a ranking of the top cities for personal freedom. Says the article, "From New York to Los Angeles, from the People’s Republic of Cambridge to the west Texas town of El Paso, city governments are using and abusing their authority to tell the rest of us how to live. Two decades of healthy economies and dropping crime rates have given many city councils the luxury of worrying about less urgent issues, from the last wisps of secondhand smoke to the discomfort of fatted geese."

Milwaukee ranks 6th in order of most personal freedom, behind Las Vegas, Miami, Denver, Louisville, and Kansas City. The bottom five cities include Chicago, Seattle, New York, San Diego, Boston.

Brew City would have ranked higher, but, ironically, our alcohol regulations kept us down. Luckily our laidback attitudes about regulating food consumption (no ban on trans fat here!) and tobacco kept our position in the top ten. Apparently the state's lack of a helmet law for motorcyclists helped, too.

Who would have thought that Milwaukee's mores are more "wild west" than Midwest? Or maybe, as the intro states, Milwaukee's city government has been too busy dealing with a troubled economy and persistent crime to become a nanny state. Are taxes on freedoms a luxury we just can't afford, unlike those booming cities at the bottom of the rankings?

Perhaps we should utilize our free status as a recruitment ploy to encourage new businesses and entrepreneurs to flock here: Milwaukee...the only city where you can enjoy some fried cheese while riding with the wind in your hair. But now that Chicago has repealed its ban on foie gras, we've probably lost any hope of absorbing that city's gastronomic refugees. Maybe we can still attract New York's smokers tired of lighting up outside in the cold.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Discussion of big picture government reforms should be accompanied by small-scale consolidation

If last week's Public Policy Forum Viewpoint Luncheon on the future of county government taught us anything, it's that far-reaching structural reform of our governmental framework will not be easy (to watch the luncheon discussion on the Wisconsin Eye website, click here).

We gathered six individuals with intimate knowledge of county government - as well as standing with diverse elements of the community - to offer their insights on the future of Milwaukee County government and our overall government structure. Only one of the six voiced support for the notion of "blowing up" the county, while several said the problem is not Milwaukee County government's structure or existence, but the inability of its leaders to get along and act decisively.

As reported by WisPolitics, while there was not a lot of support for dissolving county government, there was virtual unanimity that there is too much redundancy in government and too many layers. One panelist suggested the best approach would be to enlarge county government by eliminating municipalities and folding their functions into it, a notion that was angrily refuted by a local mayor in the audience. Others cited various examples of smaller-scale consolidation activities that could begin immediately.

Our Viewpoint demonstrated that the question of whether and how to restructure our system of governance is highly complex, highly political, and demands a great deal of additional thought and research. It showed there's a lack of consensus on what to do, though this cannot be an excuse for failing to properly acknowledge the depth of Milwaukee County's fiscal problems and the need to focus on solutions. The Forum plans to place those problems in better context in the near future with a research product that will objectively assess the county's fiscal condition using well-established criteria and benchmarks.

In the meantime, we also learned that while we thoughtfully grapple with big issues of government structure, we should not overlook pursuit of smaller consolidation efforts. The county itself just launched an impressive consolidation initiative with the city of Cudahy, under which the county will provide information technology support to the city. Cudahy gets IT support at a better price than it would from hiring its own staff or contracting with the private sector, and the county's IT operation gets some outside revenue to reduce its need for property tax support.

Consolidation efforts like this will not solve the fiscal problems facing county and municipal governments. However, they're a step in the right direction fiscally, and they will do wonders in convincing the public that government does have the ability to look past protecting its turf and toward better management of taxpayer resources.

Friday, July 25, 2008

An intergovernmental effort to address criminal justice system inefficiencies

Milwaukee's Community Justice Council, formed late last year to promote a coordinated, intergovernmental approach to solving problems confronting Milwaukee's justice system, is beginning to tackle meaty issues as budget season arrives.

The Council was formed at the initiative of Sheriff David Clarke following a 2006 Federal audit that cited Milwaukee's failure to properly coordinate jail population management and other criminal justice activities. Following a model used successfully by dozens of other communities, Milwaukee's council is chaired by Chief Judge Kitty Brennan and includes the sheriff, district attorney, county executive, mayor, police chief and public defender's office, among others.

The Council's mission is to seat the appropriate parties at the same table to work together on systemic issues. A key discussion item thus far has been how to preserve jail, House of Correction and work release beds for those who truly merit them, while utilizing other, more cost-effective and possibly safer strategies for those who do not.

Consideration of the county executive's proposal to make greater use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology for monitoring offenders on work release has been high on the Council's agenda. So has a proposal by the county's criminal court coordinator to utilize a risk assessment tool to provide the DA and courts with better information for use in considering whether and how to charge and set bail.

The Public Policy Forum has served as the Council's research arm and has prepared a number of research reports, including the following:
  • Our analysis of GPS as an alternative to having offenders spend the night at the Community Corrections Center emphasizes the need to establish clear objectives for the program (e.g. save on incarceration costs or enhance public safety?). We suggest that while GPS may have significant potential as part of Milwaukee's "alternatives to incarceration" toolbox, its use as a mechanism to shut down the county's work release center may be problematic.

  • Our analysis of the existing population housed at the work release center shows a significant percentage are convicted drunk drivers, raising the question of whether there may be safer, more effective and less costly ways to punish and reform these offenders.

  • Our research on universal screening/risk assessment of those entering the criminal justice system indicates this is a widely used best practice. We suggest that any serious effort to safely reduce pre-trial incarceration days, increase diversions and otherwise develop a coordinated approach for effectively and safely managing the county's corrections population must include comprehensive screening. Our recommendation to immediately consider a 2009 budget initiative to implement this strategy was endorsed by the full Council earlier this week.

At a time when both municipal and county budgets are under siege and are being driven in part by skyrocketing law enforcement and incarceration costs, effective coordination of justice system issues is key. The Community Justice Council is just the right mechanism for promoting such coordination, and now is just the right time to turn words into action.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

PPF Pearls: Rating the parks' amenities

Yesterday's newstory regarding the poor conditions of the restrooms in some Milwaukee County parks could have been written six years ago. Throughout the summer of 2002, the Forum sent trained assessors into the county parks to rate them on amenities, recreation, and green space. The ratings were based on a four-point scale, roughly equivalent to letter grades.

While the Parks Department gave 11 individual restrooms an F grade, our assessors found nine parks in which the overall restroom score was below 2.0 (or below a D grade). The lowest scoring parks restrooms, at 1.5, were Holler and Cudahy parks.

While some of our poor park restroom ratings were surprising, such as a 1.8 score for the otherwise well-maintained Brown Deer Park, we found that the overall ratings for all the features in a park were highly correlated with certain neighborhood features.

The highest scoring parks overall were significantly more likely to be located in neighborhoods with higher percentages of white residents, with higher home values, and with higher median incomes. This relationship may or may not be causal. And, if causal, is not necessarily due to the neighborhood residents' treatment of the park. Spending decisions and priorities of the Parks Department may be influenced by the type of neighborhood in which a park is located.

However, this week's newstory seems to indicate that the Parks Department is using data regarding relative conditions among parks to make spending decisions. Nevertheless, a tight county budget will mean not all needs can be met in all parks. Our 2002 report examined several alternative scenarios for generating more revenue to fund park maintenance and improvements. For example, had a $0.83 per $1,000 property tax rate been dedicated to the parks in 2002, it would have generated over $40 million in tax revenue in 2008, based on the growth in property values since then.

Without a solution to declining tax levy support for parks maintenance, or a re-evaluation of just how many parks we can realistically support, Milwaukee County residents can expect only more poor ratings for our parks' amenities.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A public boarding school in Milwaukee?

Last week, the newly formed Wisconsin Coalition for a Public Boarding School publicly called for the creation of an urban public boarding school in Milwaukee. The proposal calls for the SEED Foundation, which has operated a school in Washington, D.C., since 1998 and plans to open another school in Baltimore this fall, to establish its next campus in Milwaukee.

The SEED schools embrace the unique model of an "urban public boarding school," premised on the belief that students in disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods can achieve academic success if they are given a safe and supportive environment in which to study. Students are allowed to stay with their families at home on the weekends, but during the week they live on the SEED campus in a highly structured environment. Unlike elite boarding schools like Exeter and Andover, SEED schools are intentionally located as close as possible to the disadvantaged communities they aim to serve. Like the schools in Washington and Maryland, the tentative operating plan for the Milwaukee SEED school calls for a concentrated effort to raise funds from the business and philanthropic communities to cover construction and other startup costs. However, the school also plans to ask the state for about $30,000 per student in annual operating funds, triple the amount that MPS receives. Because it receives public funding, the school’s enrollment must be open to all students; when the school has too many applicants, it conducts a lottery to fill its seats – a highly emotional process that Thomas Friedman has described in the New York Times.

The basic idea behind the SEED school is that the primary obstacle standing between most inner-city students and academic success is family, neighborhood, and community circumstances. A substantial body of academic research seems to support this conclusion. Poverty, both at the family and the community level, presents significant challenges for students; a host of studies show that high housing mobility, poor nutrition, parents’ mental health problems, and other complications of poverty are all associated with lower student achievement. By removing children from their distressed communities and providing them with safe housing, quiet study space, and 24/7 support from adult teachers and tutors, SEED’s proponents argue, the boarding-school model can break the vicious cycle by which children inherit their parents’ poverty through low academic achievement.

Although no formal evaluation has been conducted, SEED’s Washington campus has had impressive results. Demographically, the odds are stacked against SEED students – the school’s student body last year was 73% low-income and 100% minority - but the school’s test scores are still better than D.C. averages. Each of the 21 students in SEED’s first graduating class went on to college; the class of 2004 racked up a long list of acceptances at top-tier schools like Cornell, Duke, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania; . Certainly, if the Wisconsin school could replicate such results, it would be a tremendous boon to Milwaukee’s most underserved students.

But the existence of a school that offers unprecedented opportunities to children from Milwaukee’s poorest communities should not trick us into dismissing the need for policies that serve everyone in those communities. A SEED school may make a world of difference for hundreds of students who graduate from its program, but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to MPS’ enrollment of more than 87,000 students. By nature, it cannot be “taken to scale,” or adopted as a model by policymakers seeking to implement change across the public school system. Moreover, SEED’s approach, which begins enrolling students in the sixth grade, does little in the face of evidence that inequalities in test scores emerge even before children enter kindergarten, much less middle school. Promising as it may be, SEED is far from a system-wide solution to the mutually reinforcing problems of poverty and ineffective schooling that confront the most disadvantaged students, and we shouldn’t let its success stories distract us from the important task of rebuilding the communities from which SEED seeks to rescue its students.