Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stimulus or no stimulus, Milwaukee County needs an infrastructure plan

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's statement (as reported in today's Journal Sentinel) that he will not request federal stimulus funds already has generated considerable reaction from other elected officials and in the blogosphere, and likely will continue to do so. While taking sides in the ideological debate over the need for and composition of a stimulus package is not the purpose of this piece (see previous Milwaukee Talkie blogs on stimulus here and here), my two cents - based on the Forum's previous research on county government - is simple: something must happen soon to address Milwaukee County's pressing infrastructure needs.

Our report last May on the county's transit funding crisis outlined how the imminent need to purchase 150 new buses (at a cost of approximately $56 million) could soon require the county to reduce transit service by up to 30%. Meanwhile, our analysis of county-owned parks and cultural institutions concluded that:
Major maintenance and basic infrastructure repair needs are significant and growing at each of the county-owned assets, with the exception of the Milwaukee County Historical Society headquarters, which is in the final stages of a major renovation. Among the more significant deferred maintenance/infrastructure needs assessment totals are $10 to $15 million for the Milwaukee Public Museum, $5.5 to $8.5 million for the Milwaukee County Zoo (plus a $130 million capital improvements wish list), and $276.6 million in the Milwaukee County Parks.
Many are quick to blame the county executive's position on tax increases for these infrastructure backlogs. A far less commonly understood and perhaps more important contributor, however, is the 2003 decision made by both the executive and county board to cap annual debt issuance for capital projects at approximately $30 million per year.

That decision was predicated on an equally important decision made that year to refinance approximately $100 million of long-term debt. The refinancing plan was structured in a manner that provided a significant near-term reduction in annual debt service payments (in order to generate operating budget relief), but that caused a spike in those payments in the out years. County policymakers prudently recognized that failure to control new debt in the interim would cause significant long-term problems, so they instituted an annual bonding cap. Today, an area of county fiscal affairs that is praised by bond rating agencies is its sound management and rapid repayment of its debt.

The catch, however, is that the policy to limit annual capital bonding did not necessarily reflect the county's infrastructure needs, was not accompanied by an analysis of those needs versus the resources available, and did not result in a plan to address the mismatch. That remains the problem today.

Are federal stimulus funds the solution to that problem? Probably not, given the depth of the county's needs and the uncertainty as to whether those needs even would be eligible for stimulus dollars.

But those who are taking options off the table that could at least help - and this goes for the county executive with regard to stimulus funds as well as supervisors who have rejected analysis of a sale or lease of General Mitchell Airport and closure of county pools - have an obligation to specify the realistic solutions they have in mind to comprehensively address the county's infrastructure needs and the legislative strategy they intend to pursue to implement those solutions.

Whether it's addressing the county's infrastructure repair backlog, solving its transit funding crisis, or figuring out how to fix or replace its aging mental health complex, it is time for less politicking and more real and honest consensus-building and planning.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the Mental Health facilities are saddly lacking in south eastern wisconsin. In this slow getting slower, economic time, we need better and more mental health facilities here.People lose their jobs and homes lend to get a little sad, sometimes dispondant.
Our transit system is broken.Is Mr. Walker an elitist who believes only people with cars have a right to get where they must go for employment?
As far as I know taxes have not changed for this year. Stimulus money is funding redirected from Bushy cushy programs to where it is really needed on the streets where the all Americans live.
Walker, if you plan on running for Governor, your position of not asking for and rejecting these funds will get you no votes. But go ahead. More for kenosha County!

Anonymous said...

Milwaukee County and the fractious thinking of our elected officials and citizenry, in general, has led us into this quagmire which has little or nothing to do with the current economic climate. The use of the $91.5M from the early 1990s continues to be debated. Most of the Park East freeway land stands vacant 5 years after the freeway was torn down. There are other examples of this fractious decision making. Walker and the County Board seem locked in a tug of war over public aid programs. What I believe is the major impediment to progress on these issues is our 19th century form of governance in the 21st century. There is no one governmental body 'speaking' to/for Milwaukee County residents. We continue with an agrarian governmental structure [village, town, city, and county government] which no longer is representative of the way we live. My tax bill shows 5 local taxing entities each with its own governance structure. With or without a stimulus package, perhaps we would be better served to restructure our local government into one governing body so we can prioritize our needs and better allocate our tax dollars. A few politicians would be out of work; a few power-brokers would be less visible but, overall,we could have a more efficient, more effective and more responsive form of governance.