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Concerns Afoot Over Plans to Hire 150 New Milwaukee Police Officers

Vincent Desjardins, Flickr
A new proposal would add a surge force of 150 officers to the Milwaukee Police Department ranks

Milwaukee is seeing a surge in some crimes – such as car thefts. Several Common Council members are now suggesting the city up its police force by 150 officers. In order to do so, Milwaukee voters would have to approve a referendum. But getting the question on the ballot by November could be a challenge in itself.

Milwaukee alderman Terry Witkowski is behind the push to increase Milwaukee’s police force by 150 officers, but he says voters must make the final decision.

“The city is maxed out tax wise. We’ve had a tax freeze since 2004 so the only way to fund additional officers is more revenue. The only way to get more revenue under state law is to ask the public to approve an amount for public safety,” Witkowski says.

The referendum would ask people whether they would like to raise property taxes to pay for additional officers over the next five years. Witkowski says he understands why some might criticize his idea.

“We have a bigger police department than other cities our size. There is a federal recommendation as to how many police officers per population, and we exceed that at this time. But the problem is that we are still having a crime problem,” Witkowski says.

Still, Witkowski says even getting the referendum on the ballot could prove challenging.

“The committee would have to say yes, the council would have to say yes and then the mayor would have to sign the legislation to have it happen, all within a short time frame,” Witkowski says.

By August 30 - to get the item on the November ballot. On Monday, the committee Witkowski is referring to, Judiciary and Legislation, decided to hold the item. Fellow Alderman Michael Murphy says it would have been irresponsible to vote, without knowing how much money the city would need for 150 more officers.

“I would rather wait until we have the accurate numbers from the Department of Revenue so that when we vote on something we know exactly what we’re voting for,” Murphy says.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett did not appear at the hearing, but his Budget Director Mark Nicolini did. He says the mayor has concerns about the proposal because the city would lose state money for not limiting the growth of expenditures.

“That $8.7 million annual payment, if lost, raises the average cost of each 150 of the officers by $58,000 apiece. So that’s a very considerable additional payment to make for the expected increase in strength,” Nicolini says.

It’s not common for Wisconsin cities to ask voters to increase the tax levy, according Curt Witynski, is assistant director of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities. He says school districts usually do the asking.

“Cities and villages don’t have that tradition, so it’s fairly rare, but it’s starting to pick up for cities and villages to go to the voters and ask for permission to exceed levy limits,” Witynski says.

Witnyski says he doesn’t know how many governments have put forth spending referendum, but he does know that since 2005, only 24 have passed.

While the proposed referendum in Milwaukee would have to be certified and in the hands of the election commission by August 30, the Common Council will likely not take up the matter until August 16.