Mayor Tom Barrett said an increase to Milwaukee’s sales tax is necessary to balance a tight city budget. While previewing city budget challenges Tuesday night, he told about 100 people at the Zeidler Municipal Building that the city faces a dire budget situation for 2018, and called the current fiscal model unsustainable.
Barrett said in the past few years, pension costs that the city pays to retirees have skyrocketed while the state has cut back on shared revenue payments to municipalities.
“It’s a question of priorities and I think both parties would say this; local government is not a priority for state government,” he said.
In addition, Barrett said police costs are on the rise. At the same time, the city has its hands full addressing other serious problems.
“Like the lead in the service line laterals, the condition of our infrastructure, the health challenges that we face, all of those are issues that really go to the quality of life in our city, but the Pac Man that’s eating everything right now is public safety and unless we have some type of relief valve, we are going to be very, very challenged heading into the next budget,” he said.
Barrett said the city needs a new revenue source to continue to pay for essential services. So, he announced that he’ll ask the Republican-controlled state Legislature for permission to put a referendum on the April ballot that would ask voters if the city could collect a half-cent sales tax, with the money put toward public safety and crime prevention.
“Unless there is an additional revenue source that is not tied to the property tax or shared revenue, you are going to see dramatic cuts in services that I think that our residents don’t want to see and I certainly don’t want to see either,” he said.
Barrett said if voters approve the sales tax, the city would avoid having to cut 84 police officers from the budget. The crowd dispersed quickly after the Mayor’s speech, but a few people stayed behind and showed their support for the sales tax idea, including Police Chief Edward Flynn. He said the tax would allow the city to capture revenue from more people who benefit from city services.
“We have hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and we police and protect them, and I think it’s only reasonable that given the amount of revenue that they bring to the city, that some of that stay behind for protective services,” he said.
Flynn said he hopes the Legislature allows the question on the ballot for next spring. Milwaukee Police Union President Mike Crivello saod he thinks legislators would be open to the idea.
“I know that Madison has a vested interest in the success of Milwaukee so I’m certain that they too, would listen keenly and involve themselves to make sure it was constructed properly,” Crivello said.
While Crivello sounded confident, it’s uncertain how state lawmakers will respond to Barrett’s proposal. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans, who have resisted proposals that could result in a tax increase.
Mayor Barrett will formally present his budget plan on Sept. 26, followed by a public hearing in early October. The Common Council is scheduled to vote on the budget Nov. 12.