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Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley shares his plans for his second term

Courtesy of David Crowley
Milwaukee County Executive, David Crowley.

Last week, David Crowley took the oath of office to begin his second term as Milwaukee County Executive. In April’s election, Crowley was reelected with 85% of the total vote. Crowley’s first term in office began in May of 2020 when he became the youngest county executive in the history of Milwaukee County, and the first Black leader elected to serve in this role.

Crowley shares his goals for Milwaukee County as he starts his second term with Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Audrey Nowakowski: You've certainly accomplished a lot in your first four years, but what do you feel like is unfinished business about your first term that you look forward to continuing into your second?

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley: I think about what we've been able to do, particularly as it relates to the sales tax, making sure that we can continue providing many of our programs and services. But it doesn't mean that we're out of the woods. And so, we know that we're going to have fiscal challenges moving forward. And so some of that unfinished business is making sure that we can continue to build on our momentum.

First and foremost, I think about the public safety building. It is the nerve system of our criminal justice system. And how do we rebuild that to make sure that it is safe for our courtrooms. [That] it is safer for everybody who's walking into that building, and that we deliver fair and equitable justice for everybody that deserves it.

I also think about the momentum we've built on affordable housing, right? [We’re] seeing some of the largest affordable housing projects happening in suburban communities. And we want to be able to double down on those efforts. So, we're looking at how we can create a Milwaukee County Housing Trust Fund to help fill in the financing gaps that's going to, in turn, help create more jobs and more prosperity for our entire community. So that requires strengthening our relationship with both state and federal partners to bring those resources back home.

Nowakowski: [The] three priorities that you were able to set as executive [in your first term include] achieving racial equity, bringing back resources, and of course, at the time, it was very significant to recover from COVID-19. So, with your three priorities, what do you feel you’ve been able to make the most progress on and which have been the most challenging to move forward?

Crowley: Wow. So, you when I think about all three of those things, I would say we definitely made some progress, right? I mean, with the pandemic, the federal dollars that we received, we made sure to help businesses and nonprofits who were facing insolvency and helping them get the resources that they needed to tackle many different issues on the ground and helping people stay within their homes.

But we're still not out of the woods yet when it comes down to COVID-19, because I still think that we're still dealing with the ramifications, just in general. Taking into account racism as a public health crisis, I think that we've been able to double down, actually, on that. We created our first strategic plan in over 20 years to make sure that we create a vision around racial equity. By achieving racial equity, Milwaukee County will be the healthiest county in the state of Wisconsin.

And so, we focused on three particular pillars, which are intentional inclusion, making sure that our boards, commissions, our workforce represents the full diversity of our community [and] making sure that we bridge the gap so that no one falls through the cracks when services are needed. But also putting the money where our mouth is and that's investing in equity. So, we have done more.

But I will say that if I had to give myself a grade on all of this, it’s still an incomplete. There's still so much work for us to do. But there's so many other folks within Milwaukee County and on the outside of our jurisdiction who need to be brought to the table to continue to move these issues forward because it's not just going to be the county or cities alone in towns and villages. We need state and federal partners at the table.

Nowakowski: So, shifting gears to one major thing in your last term, Act 12. It allowed a sales tax increase in Milwaukee County as well as more shared revenue payments. And this of course, primarily saved us from a looming fiscal cliff. But obviously, it's not a cure-all. There are still going to be fiscal challenges to come with any jurisdiction here. So, what fiscal challenges do you think remain, and what are your priorities in your next term right now?

Crowley: So, one, we have a huge deferred maintenance backlog. I think about our parks department, which is close to half a billion dollars. And as we talked about at the top of this discussion related to the public safety building, which would cost us close to about half a billion dollars to invest in, as well. And so, we know that there's still going to be challenges. I think about our county transit system, right? And we know that making sure that they're fully funded is going to be a challenge moving forward. But the unique thing about Act 12, for me, was it gave me an opportunity to travel across the state. And clearly, we have some of the same exact issues, I mean, all of the problems that are facing local communities are not all unique.

And so, it is my goal and my hope that the leaders who were able to come around and corral around Act 12, that we can do the exact same thing and look at tackling other issues that affect us locally. At the end of the day, Milwaukee County can't do this on its own. We need to create partnerships, and I will tell you that we are going to be bullish on making sure that we can strengthen more relationships, improve some relationships, and focus on how we can bring more resources back to all municipalities. Because what's facing Milwaukee County isn't just unique to us — it's facing every community across this state.

Nowakowski: Do you have any concerns about hosting the RNC in your position? How are you and other officials preparing for this massive event?

Crowley: We're constantly in communication. One, I think it always boils down to safety — and not just safety when it comes down to those delegates and those members who are attending the conference, but also safety within our community because we're going to have a huge law enforcement presence. But we also need to make sure that we have things happening here. And so, for me, I'm actually going to be out of town for a NACo conference and coming right back to make sure that these go off without a hitch. But we're in constant communication about what is needed. One of the things that I know has been talked about a lot is where our protesters are going to be staged at and making sure that we can keep folks safe and they can be able to exercise their First Amendment rights. So we're having a lot of different conversations — a lot of them we can't even really talk about quite honestly yet until we get closer to the date.

Nowakowski: With being sworn in for your second term on May 9th, reflecting back on your first term in office, what's one moment that stands out to you or a handful that really highlights, “This is why I do this job” that make you want to continue serving the public?

Crowley: I would say that those moments happened during the pandemic. When Milwaukee County was recognized for having the lowest unsheltered homeless population per capita than any other community our size across the entire country. It was a moment when I said, “This is why we do this work.” And I thought about my own upbringing, having faced three evictions and housing insecurity. I want to stop that level of cycle that I went through for many children and families [like] myself. And so, that was definitely one of those moments.

But I would say, also, with the building of the mental Health Emergency Center. You know giving people some level of access, closer access. Seventy percent of the clients that we were seeing at the Behavioral Health Division Wauwatosa, you know, lived in or around the King Park neighborhood. And so to bring this level of investment back to this community, and not just with that, even with the Health and Human Service Building, a building that many people have been complaining about for the longest of time because it's not even accessible — those are the things that make me go, “I'm glad I'm here.”

The level of NIMBYism has somewhat subsided in suburban communities because they know how much affordable housing or workforce housing is needed; those are the times when I'm like, “OK, this is great.” But I will also say, it's also a moment where I'm saying we have to capitalize off this momentum and we have to do even more. We have to go bigger. We have to go bolder, or it's time to go home.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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