What Lies Ahead For The Future Milwaukee County Executive

Feb 12, 2020

Updated Feb. 24 at 3:24 p.m. CT  

The Wisconsin spring election and presidential primary is on April 7. One of the biggest races on the ballot is for Milwaukee County executive. Chris Abele announced last October that he's not seeking reelection after holding the post since 2011.

There are two candidates vying for the position: state Rep. David Crowley and state Sen. Chris Larson

READ: Meet The 2020 Milwaukee County Executive Candidates

Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says the most pressing responsibility for the new county executive is developing the 2021 budget.

"There's a set of fiscal challenges that have been building for many, many years," he explains.

Henken cites a persistent $15 million to $20 million structural deficit.

"That's not chump change," he says. "The conundrum in which the county finds itself is that every year at the start of budget preparation season, the question is not, 'Where can we invest some resources into programs and services that are working well or try to fill some gaps?' Instead, it's, 'Where are we going to find $15- or $20 million of cuts this year?' "

READ: Milwaukee County Executive Candidates Share Ideas On How To Keep People Out Of Jail

One issue that is begging for attention is infrastructure. Henken estimates that there's about a $400 million backlog of infrastructure needs. 

"Some very difficult decisions need to be made in terms of which of the county's capital assets are going to be repaired and replaced," he says.

Aside from infrastructure needs, there are the perennial issues of the transit system and parks. Henken says that one reason both of those elements receive a lot of attention is that those are so-called discretionary services.

"The county does transit and the county does parks, not because state statutes require the county to do them but because they're very important," says Henken.

Many of these problems have grown year after year, and the decision-making process regarding the budget has become more difficult. So, with that in mind: Why would anyone want to be the county executive? 

Although Henken doesn't envy the person who's going to be taking this office, it's an important administrative role that's critical for the community. 

"It's a position where somebody who wants to roll up his or her sleeves and make government work. So yes, the challenges are fierce, but also there is no higher calling in terms of somebody who wants to serve the public," he says.

The April 7 election will determine who will be the new Milwaukee County executive.

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