Monday, June 28, 2010

PPF Pearls: Revisiting the need for an independent fiscal voice at Milwaukee County

In recent years, the Public Policy Forum has not been bashful about articulating the perilous fiscal condition of Milwaukee County government. Our intention has not been to "pile on," but to objectively discuss the size, scope and origin of the county's fiscal challenges and the need for a strategic approach to address them.

Our March 2009 report on the county's fiscal condition, for example, found the county "has attempted status quo management for far too long in an atmosphere of exceptional costs and restricted revenues." And, our review of the 2009 recommended budget cited the "failure of both branches of government to utilize a realistic and mutually agreed upon assessment of their long-term fiscal challenges," which was "indicative of a county culture that has existed for many years - one that focuses on each budget one year at a time, deferring tough problems and basic infrastructure needs while long-term liabilities grow."

Perhaps no development better exemplifies the consequences of status quo management than the county's need to spend millions of dollars on repairs and maintenance at its mental health complex in the wake of dozens of state citations.

The county has known for years that the complex is outdated and faces a huge maintenance and repair bill. The administration's proposal to move inpatient mental health services to a renovated St. Michael's hospital under a long-term lease arrangement was rejected by the county board, in part because supervisors were advised by their staff that it would be less expensive to build a new hospital on the County Grounds. Almost 18 months later, the county has made little progress on that initiative or any alternatives, and now finds itself needing to spend millions of dollars on repairs at a facility that clearly does not meet its needs.

The current circumstances are yet another example of the county's inability to realistically and effectively assess real problems and agree on real solutions due to distrust between the executive and legislative branches. Indeed, the fact that the two branches debated the future of their mental health complex for more than two years without agreement on fundamental fiscal and administrative realities - such as their capacity to issue debt or take on the legal, financial and project management complexities required to build a new hospital in a timely manner - suggests a compelling need for institutional change.

The Forum's 2009 budget review recommended establishment of an independent entity - along the lines either of the independently elected city comptroller or the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau - to counter the skepticism of each branch toward information provided by the other. We specifically noted that "in light of the recent dueling cost estimates between administration and county board staff regarding a new or renovated mental health complex," such an entity could be charged with evaluating and inserting the county's fiscal realities into critical policy debates.

The county did respond by increasing the independence of the existing controller, but he still lacks the tools and the charge to fulfill the function we envisioned. As millions of dollars are spent repairing an obsolete mental health complex the county is seeking to abandon, perhaps it is time for county decision-makers to revisit our suggestion.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The People Speak: Citizens' views on transportation issues

The June 2010 People Speak poll, conducted in conjunction with the UWM Center for Urban Initiatives and Research and The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, covers several transportation issues, including congestion, transit options, revenue diversification, and regional governance.

The People Speak is a tracking poll, conducted at regular intervals throughout the year. Its purpose is to gather information from the region's citizens about their interests in, concerns about, and preferences for public policy. By gathering and reporting these citizens' perspectives, the partners hope to expand the public voice in policy matters affecting greater Milwaukee.

Highlights from the June 2010 poll of 386 residents of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha Counties include:

  • Average grades for the region's transportation infrastructure. Local roads garner a C- and freeways a C+. Local bus service and main thoroughfares each earn a C-, as well.

  • Overall, respondents see traffic congestion as a moderate to severe problem, but do not feel it has been increasing over the past decade. Still, there is majority support for increasing the capacity of the I-94 East-West freeway.

  • Declining support since September 2009 for commuter rail and for high speed rail to Madison.

  • Support for a downtown Milwaukee streetcar system is strongest among Milwaukee County residents, although about a third of respondents overall say they would regularly use a streetcar to get around downtown Milwaukee.

  • Over half of respondents say they would support a $0.01 per-gallon increase in the gas tax to fund transportation improvements. This funding option is more popular than toll roads or increases in the vehicle registration fee. With respect to funding the Milwaukee County Transit System in particular, most agree that a half-cent sales tax is the "best option."
For the Research Brief and full results, please go to the poll's website.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When the going gets tough...

"When the going gets tough" is the theme of this year's Salute to Local Government, an event held annually by the Public Policy Forum since 1992 to recognize outstanding and innovative government performance in southeast Wisconsin.

This year's theme recognizes that as bad as the historic economic downturn has been for all sectors of our economy, the local government sector has been among the hardest hit. Indeed, plunging property values and sales tax revenues, coupled with growing demand for a variety of local government services, have created severe challenges for even the most property-rich and prudently managed local governments. Those that have weathered the storm - and perhaps emerged even stronger from their innovative efforts - certainly are worthy of recognition this year.

The 2010 award winners - described in this media release - represent a diverse group of governments, programs and individuals throughout the region. Government honorees, for example, include our biggest city, two villages and a special authority, while honored programs encompass functions ranging from watershed management to a library to a zoo. The individual award winners, meanwhile, come from the region's second-smallest county, a small city and a consolidated fire department.

So what's the overall takeaway from this year's slate of winners? Perhaps it's that examples of good government permeate all levels of government in our region, as well as a wide variety of programs that ordinary citizens may not realize are linked to the public sector or even think about as being managed in creative and effective ways.

That's not to say that examples of wasteful and ineffective government don't exist, but it is to say that such examples - while constantly and justifiably in the news - cannot be allowed to overshadow the good work being performed by thousands of local government and school district professionals in our region every day.

This year's Salute will take place on June 17 at the Italian Conference Center - to find out more and sign up, click here.