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Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley talks budget surplus, plans for the county's future

Milwaukee City Hall on Wednesday, June 14, 2023 in Milwaukee.
David Lee
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and Lake Effect's Joy in the Lake Effect studio.

For the first time in a long time, the fiscal outlook is looking bright for Milwaukee County after facing critical shortfalls for decades. The deal was made, in part, due to the work of Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.

Crowley joins Lake Effect's Joy Powers in the studio to share his budget plans and aspirations. Below is a transcript of a portion of the conversation.

Budget Surplus

County Executive David Crowley: "It's been over two decades since we've actually had the last surplus here in [the] Milwaukee County budget. And it had a very integral role to really play. So one, we started with building relationships, not just building relationships with our local business leaders, local community leaders and elected leaders, but building relationships with many of the legislators that are elected in Madison, as well as other communities across the state of Wisconsin. So we worked with our coalition, Move Forward MKE, worked in conjunction with the City of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson as well as with other institutions, right. We talked about the coalition, but when you think about Wisconsin Counties Association, the Towns Association and League of Municipalities, they were very involved in many of these negotiations, as well as dealing with, you know, Republican and Democratic leadership to get this deal done, as well as the governor."

Joy Powers: "Now, that being said, there were a lot of strings attached to this money, especially the money that was coming into the city. Milwaukee local leaders have taken issue with this. And as a result, it seems like the Common Council is suing to challenge these conditions. What are your thoughts on these rules governing how we, as Milwaukeeans, are allowed to use our tax dollars?"

Crowley: "Absolutely. I mean, at the end of the day, we are the largest community, right, the largest county, largest city of the state of Wisconsin, we have to have a little bit more autonomy on how we're actually going to tackle many of these issues. We still have to go to the state in order to raise revenues and property taxes. Now, I definitely understand why the Common Council is a little perturbed, right, because it took away some of the powers that they actually have. But fortunately for Milwaukee County, we didn't have as many strings attached, like the City of Milwaukee did, we are still able to have our Office of Equity and all of our DEI programs, and all the things that make us great and actually helping us to achieve our vision, which is being the healthiest county in the state of Wisconsin by tackling racial equity. So, but I will say that this is where we need everybody to get involved. You know, it's not just about Milwaukee County and the dwindling of the legislative power of the Common Council and some of the things that were attached to this bill. But even when you think about other municipalities, other municipalities don't have the ability to do referendums the way that we used to be able to do because of the change and shared revenue for all of us. So we need to continue to let our voice be heard in the state of Wisconsin and making sure that local government still has the ability to deliver for the people that we represent."

Fiscal Stability

Powers: "We had a community member write in with this question: Projections from your budget office and the comptroller's office indicate that the county will be back in a budget deficit of about $13 million as early as 2026. The budget deficit will continue to increase each year after. What other measures are you planning to implement to balance the budget, given the Act 12 implementation will only give really two years of sufficient funding?"

Crowley: "I think that many people may look at it as like, 'Well, what do we hope to happen when we go back into a deficit?' Well, let's put this in perspective, right? Come 2028, prior to Wisconsin Act 12 being a law, we were facing $100 million deficit, which means that we would have had to actually put many of our major amenities, some of our major use services actually on a chopping block. Whether we're talking about senior services, our county transit services, our most-used amenities like our parks. But because of Act 12, we reduce that deficit from $100 million in 2028, to about $30 million in 2028. So one, this actually gives myself as well as the County Board of Supervisors more wiggle room to make decisions in the next couple of budgets to make sure that we can keep these deficits from coming back like we've seen in the past. But it also provides an opportunity, right, because we have to continue to cultivate and build our relationships with both the state and federal government. And I think there's going to be some opportunities for us to bring back even greater resources to make sure that we can not only stave off these cuts, but continue this momentum of investments that we have seen in the past couple of years."


Powers: "We've had a lot of issues with jails and prisons in Wisconsin in general, and Milwaukee County is no exception. What is your plan to address the staffing problems that we're facing in the county corrections division?"

Crowley: "So one thing I would say is that we have two separate divisions, right, we have what was formerly the House of Corrections, which is now known as the Community Reintegration Center, which is actually under my purview. And then we have the Milwaukee County Jail, which is downtown near the courthouse, and that is actually under the purview of the sheriff's office. And so when it comes down to particularly the Community Reintegration Center, there was a point where we had about 40% vacancy. And we have turned that around tremendously. I believe at this moment, we may be lower than 20%. And so it's really about changing that culture. But a few things that we've done throughout the years is that we've increased our correctional officers pay, we've done that prior to this particular budget, we utilized some ARPA dollars in the very beginning and around 2021 to increase that pay to make this an enticing offer to get people into those doors. And then we made that permanent, right. But then within this budget, we also made another increase so correctional officers are going to be getting paid close to about $28 to $30 an hour starting off. And we want folks to know that we are hiring change-makers so you can visit jobs.milwaukeecounty.org if you're interested in applying. But we're going to continue to also work with the sheriff's office who's responsible for the jail and that's why we increase that pace is for both those jail and CRC COs. But this is going to take all of us really coming together to tackle these, these aren't necessarily the sexiest positions, right? But these are very critical and important public safety positions that we have to fill not only to make sure that our residents are safe and have the programs and staffing that they need, but making sure that those who work there are safe as well."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Becky is WUWM's executive producer of Lake Effect.
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