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Some Win, Some Lose Following Joint Finance Moves

Alan Wolf, flickr

The City of Milwaukee felt several body blows last week, when the Legislature’s Joint Finance committee passed budget provisions directly affecting the city.

They include forcing Milwaukee to pay for utility work associated with a streetcar project and scrapping the city’s residency rules for public workers. The winners in the City of Milwaukee will include ratepayers, according to Republican Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga. His district covers Brookfield, Wauwatosa and a slice of Milwaukee’s west side.

Kooyenga sponsored the streetcar measure. It forces Milwaukee – not the utilities, to shoulder the cost of moving power lines for the rail project.

“There’s a small number of businesses, residents and not for profits that are required to pay the cost of moving those steam lines and the cost was in the millions of dollars and so by specifying in state statute that the city has to pay those costs and not the ratepayers, that saves a substantial amount of money for city residents, not for profits and businesses,” Kooyenga says.

Ald. Michael Murphy sees the city on the losing end of mean-spirited moves. He says one big loss is local control.

“They don’t support this transportation project so as a result they’re going to say to the rest of the citizens of the city who through their collective representation, their members of the council and the mayor who have supported it, we’re going to take that away from you, we’re not going to give you the right to make that decision,” Murphy says.

Murphy says Milwaukee also stands to lose tax revenue if the state scraps the city’s residency rule. Middle-class teachers, police and fire fighters may move out of the city in sizeable numbers, deflating property values.

While the city could see its employees and paychecks going elsewhere, the state as a whole could benefit, according to Rob Henken.  He heads the Public Policy Forum.  Henken foresees communities statewide having an easier time filling positions.

“In terms of residency for teaching positions, there could be benefits for urban school districts who are having problems recruiting teaching staff,” Henken says.

While public workers and managers might face fewer restrictions, Professor Charles Franklin says the state may have to pay big time, if Milwaukee’s tax base sinks. Franklin is a political scientist at UW-Madison.

“If the city of Milwaukee in particular suffers further declines in housing values or a greater difficulty in sustaining its revenue then that certainly has long term repercussions for the health of the state. Anything that damages the largest city in the state potentially leads to further need for state support or a declining state economy if this means that the city’s economy goes into decline,” Franklin says.

Another change the Joint Finance Committee made in the proposed state budget would prevent the city from raising fees in order to live within the property tax constraints the state has imposed.

Some city officials accuse Republicans of targeting their political opponents. Supporters of the changes insist they’re continuing to chip away at big, expensive government.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.