Thursday, June 23, 2011

Economic development strategies in Milwaukee County: E pluribus unum?

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele recently named Brian Taffora as Milwaukee County’s new director of economic development. According to the press release, the new director will be responsible for achieving Abele’s economic development priorities as well as several larger goals.

Two of the specific priorities, as one might expect, involve job creation in the Park East and further job growth within the County Grounds in Wauwatosa—both county-owned properties. More generally, however, the new director indicated that he will focus on the creation of partnerships among municipalities, universities, trade groups, and businesses located in the county in order to retain and grow existing businesses and increase new employment and economic opportunities.

An upcoming report by the Public Policy Forum on economic development goals and activities in Milwaukee will indicate that the new director is entering an economic development landscape well-populated by a variety of municipal agencies, public corporations, regional partnerships, and non-profit organizations. All of these entities cite a variety of economic development initiatives in which they are engaged. In fact, many of the economic development activities mentioned by Mr. Taffora are being undertaken, at least partially, by these other economic development participants.

If the county intends to increase its economic development efforts, as the county executive and his new economic development director seem to indicate, several questions should be considered at the outset.

First, what specific strategies will the county use to recruit or expand businesses in the area and how will these strategies complement the current strategies used by municipalities in the county? Second, if county government wants to increase economic development-based partnerships within the county, how will its efforts complement—or differ from—regional economic development organizations such as the Milwaukee 7? Third, what role will the county play when economic development disagreements arise between municipalities in the county such as the recent dispute over the potential relocation of Eaton Corporation? And finally, what economic development tools does the county have at its disposal that might advance regional priorities?

As the region emerges from an extended economic downturn there is little doubt that increased efforts, like those of the county, are needed. However, with such a variety of economic development efforts occurring in southeastern Wisconsin, perhaps the next question for the entire region is how to achieve greater coordination and prioritization among participants.

For example, as strategies change and new organizations form, would the region benefit from an economic development plan that explicitly states, for the public and the organizations themselves, what role each group will play? Stay tuned for the Forum’s forthcoming economic development report—tentatively scheduled for release in late summer—for detailed analysis of this and other strategic economic development questions facing our region.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Milwaukee County's declining corrections population

With all of the doom and gloom surrounding the finances of Milwaukee County government, it is certainly worthy of attention when some promising fiscal news emerges from the Courthouse. Consequently, when the Public Policy Forum learned that the inmate population at the county's two adult detention facilities had plummeted, we took notice.

In researching the matter, we found that not only had the adult population declined in recent years, but the number of delinquent youth housed in state corrections institutions had dropped even more dramatically. And, upon investigating the dollar savings associated with these declining populations, we found even more eye-opening numbers.

Today, the Forum published a Research Brief documenting the steep drop in Milwaukee County detention populations and spending. In addition to laying out the numbers, we recommend actions by county leaders to determine why these trends are occurring, how they are impacting public safety, and what might be done to sustain them. Among the report's key findings:

  • The average number of adults and juveniles in detention each day was 2,892 in 2010, by far the lowest total in the past five years, and 16% lower than the average of 3,448 detainees held each day in 2008.

  • On the juvenile detention side, the average daily population (ADP) of Milwaukee County youth housed in state juvenile corrections institutions was 170, or 35% lower than the average of 263 just two years earlier. In addition, the ADP in the county’s own juvenile detention facility decreased 17% in that period (from 106 to 88), and the monthly average of active cases in the juvenile system plummeted 39% (from 2,971 to 1,823).

  • On the adult side, the total number of individuals under detention and/or the supervision of the Milwaukee County Sheriff declined by 455 between 2007 and 2010, a 14% decrease.

  • The reductions in detainee populations have been major contributors to substantial property tax levy reductions in the budgets of both the county’s Delinquency and Court Services Division (DCSD) and Office of the Sheriff. At DCSD, property tax levy expenditures decreased from $19.8 million to $12.8 million between 2008 and 2010, while property tax expenditures on adult detention in the Sheriff’s budget decreased from $101 million to $97 million during the same period.
The Research Brief explains that there are several competing points of view among law enforcement officials and others as to why the steep declines in detainee populations are occurring and whether they are desirable from a public safety perspective. Because of these competing views and a lack of available data to determine who is correct, the report recommends a series of actions by elected and justice system officials to step up data collection efforts and solicit informed discussion.

In particular, this is the type of issue that should be carefully deliberated by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. In a 2010 report on the county's governance structure, the Forum observed that other county boards tend to place "greater focus on nuts-and-bolts administrative strategies – how to more effectively reduce jail populations, process individuals through the courts, achieve higher bond ratings, fill potholes – and less on ideological debate."

The decline in detention populations, therefore, not only gives supervisors a great opportunity to save money, but also to undertake the type of rigorous policy oversight that ought to be a norm at committee meetings and budget hearings.

The Research Brief - which was made possible by grant funding from the Helen Bader Foundation - can be accessed here, and our media release here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

MMSD's fiscal condition: downstream accomplishments, upstream challenges

This morning, the Public Policy Forum released a comprehensive asessment of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). This is the fourth in a series of reports analyzing the financial condition of major Milwaukee area local governments. It finds that while MMSD has experienced few of the financial difficulties experienced by others, it faces difficult long-term issues nonetheless.

The report uses the same fiscal monitoring methodology employed previously for reports on Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, and MATC. It examines fiscal trends, compares MMSD with other wastewater treatment agencies nationally, and analyzes emerging fiscal challenges.

The good news is that MMSD’s decision in the late 1990s to outsource most of its operations has greatly reduced operating budget pressures and risk, while its capital program has benefited from careful planning and prudent debt management practices. In fact, as measured by commonly used fiscal indicators, MMSD enjoys sound fiscal health and appears well-positioned for the future.

A closer look, however, also reveals that the cost to maintain the existing sewer system and achieve MMSD’s water quality goals could amount to many billions of dollars, and that the district may struggle to identify the means to fund both basic infrastructure repairs and watershed planning strategies.

Key findings from the report include:

  • MMSD’s well-funded reserve accounts and long-term operations contract with Veolia Water, as well as its user-based revenue structure, provide a level of operating budget stability not enjoyed by most local governments.

  • The net value of MMSD’s capital assets is nearly $3.5 billion, which means the district’s residents have invested more in MMSD’s property, plant and capital equipment than in the facilities of Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee and MATC combined.

  • National data show MMSD's sewage and treatment capacity offers greater protection from sewage overflows than most other districts and provides higher-quality effluent discharges. MMSD also ranks high in comparisons on operating efficiency.

  • After decades of aggressive capital spending, MMSD’s capital projects will decline significantly under the district’s six-year capital financing plan in order to stabilize a rise in debt service expenditures. Project funding may be further affected by state budget actions. Those developments may hamper MMSD’s efforts to work with local municipalities to reduce stormwater runoff and infiltration and inflow from laterals on private property.

The report explains that completion of the Deep Tunnel and its extensions allows MMSD to shift its focus to broader priorities, including provision of technical support and financial assistance to repair deteriorating private sewer laterals, and provision of funding for “green” projects aimed at reducing stormwater runoff, which is now the major source of regional water pollution.

Increased policy flexibility also may bring increased conflict, however, particularly over the question of who should pay. For example, there are more than 3,000 miles of private property laterals within the district, and the district’s efforts to partner with municipalities to improve infrastructure on private property raise new questions about the financial responsibility of both local governments and individual homeowners for repair costs.

The full report - which was made possible through grant funding by the Northwestern Mutual Foundation - can be accessed here. A media release is available here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

2011 Salute winners show diversity of government services

The Public Policy Forum has held an annual awards ceremony to honor outstanding government performance - the Salute to Local Government - for each of the past 18 years. As the Forum prepares to hold its 19th annual Salute on June 23 (see details and sign up here), it could be argued that at no time since the program's inception has the role and value of local governments and school districts been more unsettled.

The beauty of the Salute, however, is the opportunity it provides to put aside political differences for one morning and celebrate public sector accomplishment. Indeed, no matter where one stands on the governor's budget repair bill, we all should be able to agree that innovative and professional government performance is worth saluting. And, whether one thinks government is too big or too small, or public sector employees are compensated too much or not well enough, perhaps we also can agree that there are certain nuts-and-bolts government services that need to be performed, and that those who perform them well deserve recognition and praise.

This year's list of Salute award winners - selected by a panel of judges appointed by the Forum - demonstrates the diversity of government services in our region. The government winners include a cost-saving initiative by a village public works department; a technology initiative by a municipal court; an economic development initiative by two city governments; and a math, science and engineering initiative by a joint school district. Individual winners, meanwhile, include a city fiscal official, a county parks official, and a retired county human services director.

For those counting, that's seven separate functional areas of local government and five different types of governments (village, city, county, school district and courts). And again, while citizens may differ on whether there are too many layers of government and too many types of government services, it's nice to know there is outstanding performance occurring in each of these areas.

A complete list of the 2011 Salute winners can be accessed here, and a media release with additional details here.