Smiling child

Milwaukee County: Residents decry county budget cuts

500 turn out to voice concerns at public hearing
By Steve Schultze of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Nov. 2, 2009

A packed house at Washington Park Senior Center bore witness Monday night to a litany of impassioned pleas made to 19 mostly silent Milwaukee County supervisors to save programs threatened by next year’s unusually tough budget.

Don’t privatize county jobs, don’t cut aid to outpatient mental health, don’t close pools, supervisors were told. Speaker after speaker begged, cajoled, demanded – one even sang, a few quoted Scripture – calling for avoiding cuts proposed by County Executive Scott Walker for 2010.

“It’s time for our brothers who have taken from us to give,” thundered 72-year-old Georgia Wright during her allotted two minutes at the microphone. “I want to know why” poor citizens have been denied help, Wright demanded.

Eric Palmer said he stood to speak in favor or retaining the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kosciuszko community centers, from which Walker proposed to trim the county’s entire $860,000 in annual support. After hearing other speakers appeal for a whole range of services, Palmer said he was tossing his prepared remarks.

“These are basic necessities,” Palmer said of the range of threatened services. “The outrage is here because, why do you cut at the bottom every time?”

The crowd of some 500 was decidedly tilted in opposition to trims, with a strong contingent of county union workers and backers of broad support for county parks well represented. Applause and cheers reinforced the speakers.

Several lobbied specifically for final approval of a $20 motor vehicle registration fee, or “wheel tax,” to prop up services. The measure would raise about $9 million next year and has been recommended by the County Board’s finance committee as a way to support transit and avoid some cuts.

Barbara Beckert, Milwaukee office manager for Disability Rights Wisconsin, spoke on behalf of a coalition of 40 social agencies in advocating for instituting the county wheel tax. She called it “the revenue source that’s needed in these tough times.”

The future of the tax as a savior of programs, however, remains in doubt.

Walker has threatened to veto the wheel tax if supervisors include it in the budget. It takes at least 13 of 19 supervisors to override a veto.

County officials started work on the 2010 budget behind the eight ball, in the form of an $80 million projected deficit.

Walker’s version holds the tax levy at the same $257 million level as this year’s, imposes $41 million in cuts in employee wages and benefits and eliminates nearly 400 jobs.

Not everyone at Monday’s hearing favored saving services.

Victoria Maroney said she supported Walker’s budget. “Whatever it takes to not raise property taxes. We cannot afford higher taxes,” she said.

Under Walker’s plan, more than half of the lost jobs would be taken over by private firms, including those of 93 housekeepers, 42 social workers, 31 security workers, 31 airport firefighters and 15 computer technicians.

The County Board finance committee version of the budget rejects the job privatizations and includes a milder set of employee concessions including elimination of seniority wage increases and a reduction in employee pensions. Walker has said if the County Board fails to outsource the jobs, he’ll propose a new privatization plan early next year.

Under the finance committee’s action, the tax levy would increase about $1 million, or 0.4%, to $258 million next year.

The committee takes its final action on the budget Wednesday and the full board votes on the 2010 budget next Monday.

Click here to read the article on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel website.