Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Revisiting the role of counties

The title of an article by Alan Greenblatt in this month's Governing magazine asks a question that has received considerable attention in Milwaukee County during the past few years: Are counties "an outdated concept or the future"?  

Local businessman Sheldon Lubar aggressively raised that question in 2008, when he suggested in a speech to the downtown Rotary Club that Milwaukee County government had grown so dysfunctional, it wouldn't work "if Jesus was the county executive and Moses chaired the board of supervisors."  He suggested that the government gradually be dissolved, with its functions spread out to state government, municipalities and regional authorities.

In January 2010, the Public Policy Forum weighed in on the subject with a 160-page analysis commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Committee.  Our report, "Should it Stay or Should it Go," detailed the logistical, legal and political hurdles that would complicate an effort to dismantle the county, and suggested that alternative restructuring approaches - such as consolidating certain municipal functions at a county or regional level - also be considered. 

Interestingly, the Governing article reveals that virtually identical debates are occurring in other parts of the country.  It cites cases of elected and civic officials who have grown so frustrated with the financial problems and/or dysfunction of their county governments that they are suggesting those governments be dissolved, and other cases where leaders are pushing for the opposite approach of growing their county governments by having them absorb municipal functions.

Another important take-away from the Governing  piece, however, is that while we can and should think about radical restructuring as a response to county government financial woes, we should not allow such contemplation to preclude action on strategies that are less comprehensive, but that may be effective nonetheless.

As Greenblatt puts it, "the growing disconnect between the demand for services and the general county-level ability to pay for them has led to a round of structural changes in the ways that counties do their business. For one thing, counties are outsourcing and privatizing like never before. And they are collaborating more with other governments than they ever have, both with the municipalities and special districts within their borders and with other counties in their regions."

Greenblatt cites examples of county governments across the country that are teaming up with adjacent counties to provide health and human services, or offering their municipalities the opportunity to contract with them for information technology and public works.  He also suggests such initiatives would not have occurred had counties not had a "financial gun to their head."

Whether or not one agrees that lethal fiscal threats are a good thing, applying that principle to our circumstances in Milwaukee County may make sense.  There has been ample discussion about the need to pursue service sharing and functional consolidation at both the municipal and county levels, and a few notable recent examples of success in our region (e.g. consolidated dispatch centers in Racine and Waukesha counties) and in Milwaukee County (e.g. partnerships between Milwaukee County and adjacent counties for delinquency services and Family Care).  Still, movement toward meaningful service sharing between Milwaukee County and its municipalities has been somewhat slow.

While Milwaukee County's fiscal fortunes appear to have improved somewhat in recent weeks, deep structural problems remain.  Greater collaboration with municipal governments in functions ranging from property tax collection to public works remains a promising yet largely untapped area of potential relief.