Monday, January 31, 2011

Framing the issues for the county executive candidates

During the past three years, the Public Policy Forum has churned out more than a half-dozen reports on issues pertaining to Milwaukee County government as part of our mission to educate the public about key policy issues impacting the region's economy and quality of life.

Those include an award-winning report on the county's transit funding crisis; a comprehensive review of the fiscal condition of its parks system and cultural facilities; another award-winning assessment of its overall fiscal condition; a redesign plan for its adult mental health system; and a carefully-researched analysis of potential substantive changes to its governance structure.

Today, we release a 2011 Milwaukee County Executive Election Brief that describes and frames those issues in a manner designed to be comprehensible to voters and helpful to the candidates themselves. The report begins with an overview of Milwaukee County’s budget and finances that provides a broad sense of the county’s budgetary structure and its longstanding fiscal challenges. Then, it summarizes and updates our recent research on the structural deficit, mass transit, mental health, and parks/recreation/culture. Each section concludes with a set of questions and policy considerations that should be foremost in the minds of candidates and voters.

Our goal, as always, is to cut through the politics and boil down these controversial issues to their basics. Doing so shows that in many respects, the issues and problems facing Milwaukee County government are elementary in nature and demand equally elementary, yet politically difficult, responses. Our hope is that the candidates will acknowledge the relatively uncomplicated roots of the county's challenges and candidly discuss their proposed solutions.

The full report can be accessed here. Also, tomorrow's the last day to sign up here for our February 4 county executive candidates forum, at which the report will be discussed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New survey shows mixed feelings on water issues

A new survey of nearly 400 residents of the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic, and Menomonee River watersheds shows opinions are mixed on the role of government and the impacts of individual actions on protecting the region’s water resources.

The survey, designed and analyzed by the Public Policy Forum and commissioned by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, also shows that citizens rank “the quality of water in the inland lakes, rivers, and streams in southeastern Wisconsin” an average of 3.3 on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 representing “extremely poor” and 5 representing “excellent”), and that sewer overflows and flooding are considered to be the top two water problems for the region during the next decade.

Respondents also view many government actions to protect water resources as at least somewhat effective, but split on whether the best governing body for water resource management is the state or a regional water district.

The most striking finding is that, in general, most respondents feel that the actions of individuals are not likely to have a big impact on water conservation or water quality. Yet, when asked about specific actions individuals might take in these areas, most are seen as being at least somewhat effective. In addition, when asked about their own actions, most respondents indicate they have taken action, or would be willing to do so, to protect the region's water resources.

A complete analysis of the survey can be found on the Forum's website.

The survey was funded by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, with additional support from the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc. and American Rivers. The Research Brief was underwritten by Badger Meter.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wither Madison, wither Milwaukee?

As the Public Policy Forum’s 2010-2011 Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellow, I am honored to be working on a year-long project that will examine how municipal governments in Wisconsin raise and spend their tax dollars. Over the next five months, I will be sharing some of my research with the blog. Ultimately, my research will lead to a paper that will discuss alternatives to financing municipal governments.

The Forum previously documented the fiscal problems that arise from the City of Milwaukee’s reliance on shared revenue from the state to fund its general purpose budget. Indeed, intergovernmental revenue represents about 45% of Milwaukee’s general purpose budget, which makes it the largest source of revenue.

The early stages of my research indicate that it is rare for a city to depend so much on intergovernmental revenue. Columbus, Oklahoma City, and Boston, for example, all offer different models that cities use to fund their general budgets without as much dependence on external revenue sources.

Columbus funds its general budget primarily through a city income tax. In Ohio, state law requires all municipalities to impose a flat individual income tax, and the maximum rate that a municipality can impose without voter approval is 1%. Columbus, through voter approval, imposes a 2.5% tax on earned income such as wages, salaries, and net business proceeds generated in the city. As a result, more than 70% of the general budget’s funding comes from the municipal income tax. Milwaukee, of course, has no city income tax.

Oklahoma City, meanwhile, funds its general budget mostly with a sales tax. It levies a tax of 3.87% on sales in the city, and about half of that revenue goes directly into the general budget. In fact, Oklahoma City uses property tax revenue only for capital projects (such as roads) and not for operating expenses. Milwaukee has no city sales tax.

Boston, meanwhile, funds more than 60% of its general budget through the property tax. The property tax rate in Boston is $11.48 per $1,000 of housing value, which is considerably less than Milwaukee’s $27.70. Boston benefits from having more expensive property; in 2010, the total assessed value of Boston’s property was $87.3 billion, compared to $28.9 billion in Milwaukee. This enables Boston to raise more money at a lower rate. Regardless, Boston has at least identified a main, locally-controlled tax base (property) to fund its operating expenses. Milwaukee, where property tax revenue is about 21% of the general budget, has not.

To be sure, these three distinct models to fund municipal budgets each have their own costs and benefits, which will be analyzed and discussed in my report. Yet, it is clear that Columbus, Oklahoma City, and Boston are relatively self-sustaining, while Milwaukee is enormously dependent on Madison for its survival.

The Forum is now accepting applications for the 2011-2012 fellowship year. For more information, go to the Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellowship website. Applications are due April 30, 2011.