Bus lines, parks, the Mitchell Park Domes. These are all things that are funded by the county. According to Milwaukee County leaders, the municipality has been operating with a structural deficit for years and difficult cuts must now be made.
On Tuesday night, the Kosciuszko Community Center was full of people concerned about the county's budget. Marianne Panefska was one of them. She's a member of Sheridan Park Friends, a nonprofit group that not only pulls weeds but also independently raises money for the parks. This year the group got money for more park benches and trees in the Cudahy park.
Panefska says the situation is dire in the parks, and that it's more like a never-ending crisis.
"Last year, it was they were trying to put in parking meters in the park roads so that anybody who came with a family or by themselves who wanted to park in one of the park roads would have to pay to do that, which is unheard of. I mean, people cannot afford that," says Panefska. "We paid for the parks many, many years ago, and we paid for them to keep them free and open to all the residents of the county and they should stay that way."
But the parks weren't the only concern raised at the budget briefing. Marvin Harris is a county transit bus driver. If he could get one thing out of Tuesday's meeting, it would be:
"A fair contract. Resolve some of the issues that we are speaking about. These matters should have been settled. When you propose and make a statement about things handled in good faith ... good faith wouldn’t have gotten us to this point," says Harris.
County Executive Chris Abele is in his ninth year of putting together a budget. He says the concerns that people raised did not fall on deaf ears. But balancing the budget has become increasingly more difficult. Every year they have had to cut around $25 million on average from the budget.
"As soon as you get into a contest and what's more important to you — transit or public safety or the courts or the district attorney's humanities or Disability Services, mental Health — they're all important," says Abele.
One thing he says he considers when deciding what gets funded is who needs the services most.
"It's hard, you know. It would be a lot easier to have these budget hearings every year if the argument was not about what are we going to cut [but] the argument is about what we are going to invest in," says Abele.
The county deficit is not because there isn't enough money, according to Abele. He says Milwaukee County is a huge revenue generator. The issue is that the county sends an unsustainable amount to the state, which may confuse residents especially when their taxes increase.
The solution that Abele and some county executives are pushing is a proposal called the Fair Deal. It aims to create a new partnership with the state of Wisconsin to protect public services and invest in the future.