Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley on Milwaukee's fiscal forecast
Last week, Milwaukee County released its five-year fiscal forecast and its predictions are troubling. The expected budget shortfall is even higher than previously predicted and it's unclear how this deficit can be resolved without significant changes at the state level. Republican leaders at the state level have been slow to act, and without a change to state laws, Milwaukee County is left without options that don't include significant cuts to services. To explore this issue further, Lake Effects Joy Powers is joined by Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.
The below conversation with Crowley has been edited for clarity.
LAKE EFFECT’S JOY POWERS: So, you just released the financial forecast for Milwaukee County and as it has been predicted before, we are facing a major fiscal Cliff. What wasn't previously predicted was really just how large this fiscal cliff is going to be — $109.5 million. How did we get to this point?
MILWAUKEE COUNTY EXECUTIVE DAVID CROWLEY: Absolutely. Well, I will tell you that, you know, prior to this report, we were predicting just about a year ago that we will see about an $87 million gap over the next five years and to see this new report it's not necessarily new for us. When we think about the growing gap, we know that it can be contributed to — largely driven by our pension costs, which is related to our investment returns. And so that's one of the reasons why that we see the the gap growing. But I think that this continuously speaks to the need for partnership with the State of Wisconsin — something that I have been talking about since I've been County Executive, and I think even my predecessors before then. But I think at the end of the day, it shows that particularly local governments, but in general, we need that partnership with the state to make sure that we continue to deliver the programs and services that our residents desperately need.
POWERS: And when you say partnership, I think you mean a couple of the solutions that you're looking at, both possibly a local sales tax option, or increasing the shared revenue that Milwaukee County receives from the state. That's how most municipalities are funded in the state, or a large portion of their budgets, I should say. Have we seen progress on either front?
CROWLEY: Well, I would say that we have seen progress in the fact that we're all having this discussion — not just local municipalities throughout the state of Wisconsin, but the State Legislature and the Governor as well. And while we have not seen exactly what we're going to do to fix the revenues with local governments, I will say that it is hopeful to see all, the fact that all of the folks at the table are having a conversation, trying to figure out: How do we make sure that local municipalities statewide have the revenues in order to, again, invest in their local communities? So, when it comes down to shared revenue, we know that many communities need that. But when we think about the scale of the problem, particularly for Milwaukee County, the local option sales tax is the is the best tool available to us through the State Legislature that's going to help us really close this gap in the near future.
POWERS: Now to clarify for listeners, currently in the state of Wisconsin, there really isn't an option for municipalities to raise their taxes beyond this 0.5 tax that they are allowed on top of these states tax. Have Republicans in the legislature seemed open to making this change, which would have to be a change made by the Legislature?
CROWLEY: Yeah, and I appreciate you giving that background because when you think about counties, I mean, you know, all of us, we have the ability to exercise at 0.5% sales tax. Many of us throughout the entire state have been utilizing that tool, except for a small handful of counties. But I will say that as we continue to have these conversations, people are open to making sure that we can find some type of fix as it relates to the shared revenue pot. I know the Governor has thrown out his idea through his budget as it relates to 20% of the total sales tax. And I think that as we continue to talk with both sides of the aisle, many of them are open to making sure that again, local municipalities have access to additional revenues. If we want to make sure that we are investing in our public safety, if we're investing in our roads, investing in transit, investing in parks, investing in the quality of life issues that so many people depend on, its’ going to take that partnership with the state and for Milwaukee County in particular, that includes that 1% sales tax at the at the very minimum. So, we are excited that we're having these conversations and I would say that people are open. The issue is out there and now it's about what will happen in the next few months to see what kind of fix that we get to make sure that all local municipalities are successful.
POWERS: Now, you mentioned a variety of the places where this money really goes — we're talking about parks, we're talking about public safety, we're talking about the very many things that make Milwaukee a city where you want to live — a county where you want to live. Let's say nothing happens with these conversations. Let's say they don't go anywhere. Where are we going to see cuts?
CROWLEY: Well that's a great question. And I think what people need to understand is that, you know, as counties we are an extension of the state. And so, there are programs that the state mandates that we actually provide. And so, when you think about the public safety continuum, we have to make sure that we are providing that. But without additional revenues, it's going to be hard for us to fund that public safety continuum. But even when you think about the issues that we have related to our parks, related to our transit, related to our senior services, youth services, disability services, or homelessness services — many of those services that we provide are non-mandated programs. And so, in the next couple of years, four to five years, Milwaukee County would no longer have local dollars to invest in those local priorities. And so, we have to understand that the dollars that we invest at the county level all focus on how we can retain our employees, how we can bring in more capital investment and for employee recruitment for the businesses that we represent. But we are talking about the public safety continuing and the quality of life programs that people rely on and that make people stay here. Those are going to be some of the things that are going to be — that are going to see some types of cuts if we don't get the type of partnership that we need with the state of Wisconsin.
POWERS: Now you said something interesting there: non-mandated programs. When we look at mandated programs versus non-mandated programs, what does that mean in the context of the county?
CROWLEY: So, you know, one of our biggest used amenities that we have are like our Milwaukee County Transit system and Milwaukee County parks. When you think about our parks, we have the Emerald Necklace of Parks right here in our own backyard, and you can go to any community across this country and you'll never see the type of green space that we have, which makes us an attractive place for people to live, work and play.
And so, when you think about those parks and you think about the county transit system — the transit system that allows us to transport people to work, to school, to their healthcare appointments. Those are the things that are non-mandated. Those are things that we decided as a county were extremely important to this community to make sure that we can continue to grow our economy locally here in the county, but also our regional economy at the same time. But those mandated programs are some of the things that all counties across the state of Wisconsin are responsible for.
So, that's providing the supports for the court systems. That's making sure that we have our Sheriff's Office out — and not just in the courtrooms, but Milwaukee County, we’re one of the very few counties that have to patrol our own County Highways. And when you think about the fact, the public safety continuum, when an individual is convicted of a misdemeanor where they have to serve a year or less, we as the county are responsible for housing of those residents and making sure that we rehabilitate them before they enter back into society. And so, you know, those are some of the mandated programs that we have. And so, it's a balancing act because we cannot decide that we're not going to put money or invest in these state mandated programs because again, we are responsible for carrying out the Wisconsin Constitution and the United States Constitution. And so, it really puts us in a bind and making sure that we can fund the county as a whole to make sure that we are again a destination that people want to be.
POWERS: As you mentioned, we do have some amount of homelessness in the city of Milwaukee in Milwaukee County. And like many U.S. cities, Milwaukee has an affordable housing crisis. Milwaukee County also doesn't have enough affordable homes to meet its needs. You've announced a few projects that would increase the number of units available to people here and a couple of weeks ago you said there would be yet another housing project soon. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
CROWLEY: We have a lot of different projects. I don't want to get too ahead of my skis, but you know, right now we have a housing project happening in South Milwaukee. We've been working with Wauwatosa and Brown Deer as well. And what we've realized, and I think everyone across the country has realized, is that we don't have enough housing stock that is available and affordable for many families who live in these communities.
So, to see the amount of housing that we're bringing on — not just because it's happening countywide — to see this amount of affordable housing happening in suburban areas is a really good thing. And at the end of the day, we want to make sure that we're not pricing people out of being able to continue to live throughout Milwaukee County no matter what municipality that they live in. And so, whether we are talking about individuals who are, who work in public safety, right?
We are talking about our police officers, our teachers, our EMS. We're also talking about some of our municipal workers as well who are doing, for example, sanitation pickup. Many of them work in the communities, but they can't afford to be in those communities. So, we want to make sure that we're providing enough housing so those people can stay within their own neighborhoods. And so, it's extremely important that we continue to have this conversation as we move forward because, you know, we're glad to say that we're seeing more housing coming on board and coming online. But we know that this is just a drop in the bucket as it relates to the need.
And so, you know, not just with the affordable housing, but what we're doing with the 90 lots that we've purchased within the City of Milwaukee to build single family homes for first time home buyers — particularly who come from communities of color. It's going to be extremely powerful and helping us to really build the community right here. And at the end of the day, when we think about housing, it's important to remember that this is just another avenue towards us being the healthiest county in this state. It is difficult for an individual to think about their own health, to think about employment, to think about education when they don't know where they're going to be sleeping later on that night and don't have a roof over their head. And so for us it's extremely important, particularly as county executives, to continue to talk about the need for housing and continue to partner with developers with local municipalities and bring other partners to the table to figure out how we move this forward?
POWERS: Do you have an idea of how many units we will actually see in maybe the next five years, or at least a goal of how many units you want to create within the county?
CROWLEY: Well, what I would tell you is it's very difficult to come up with that number, right? I mean, I think that when we talk about the goal, you know we need thousands of affordable housing units throughout Milwaukee County and we probably need, tens of thousands of affordable housing units and even more across the state of Wisconsin.
But what I would tell you is that we've been able to make these investments because of the of the federal dollars that we've received. And so, we are making this investment because we understand what the future holds. But we will say that we — this is the time where we need partnerships again; with the state, with the State Legislature and the Governor as well as the federal government and making sure that we can continue to make these types of investments.
Milwaukee County it will no longer be in a position to make these types of investments because of our fiscal outlook. And we're not the only ones that are in this situation. Every municipality in the state is facing the same thing. And so, I think it's important that we continue to keep this conversation alive to make sure that we are planning for the future; bringing as many affordable units online as possible because it's not getting any better right now. And so, we know that rents have went up, inflation has definitely taken a toll on many different families. So, we know that the housing crisis is still ahead of — is still here. And so, we need to make sure that we continue to bring this conversation to the forefront. I really appreciate you bringing this up.
POWERS: Now, finally with this idea of making sure that Milwaukee County is an equitable space for all people. The director of the Office of Equity, Jeff Roman, recently resigned. Do you have thoughts on what he did in office, and really what you hope to see with the next director?
CROWLEY: First and foremost, I just have to say congratulations to our former director, Jeff Roman. I think he did an excellent job of being our very first Chief Equity officer within Milwaukee County in our Office of Equity and really excited to see what he's going to be doing in his next chapter because I know he's going to be doing some consulting.
But really, you know, it's really continuing to pick up that mantle and make sure one: retain your look internally — looking at Market County government; making sure that we are fully representative of this community and what we need to do internally to move forward as it relates to equity. Because before we can tell everybody else about what they need to be doing to get in the best place, we have to make sure that when we take a good look in the mirror, we're seeing the best reflection of ourselves.
But when it comes down to the Office of Equity, it's about also working not just internally, but working externally with our outside partners, with other municipalities, working with business groups, working with ethnic chambers, and working with nonprofits in the philanthropic community to figure out how we all come together to make sure that we are focusing on equity across the board, which is going to give us further the ability to become the healthiest counties in the state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee County does not just own equity work. We need partners in this work, and we can only do it with others if we can lock arms as we move forward to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to thrive. And so, when it comes down to the next director, the goal is to make sure that we don't skip a beat and that we are in the best place possible to make sure that we can continue to bring partners to the table. But also, what new ideas? What new ideas can we bring and how can we work with other communities across the country until we look at best practices and share those best practices? But also evaluate one another on these best practices. The equity work that we are doing within Market County is fairly new. In 2019, we were the first municipality in the country to declare racism as a public health crisis, and we will continue to build this plane as we fly it. But we know that we don't have to do it alone. I hope that the next director continues the long legacy that Director Roman is leaving and ensures that we're bringing more people into the fold.
POWERS: Well, County Executive thank you so much for joining us here on Lake effect.
CROWLEY: Always a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.