On Wednesday November 17th, the Milwaukee County Board, under the leadership of Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Jr., proved it cannot be trusted to put the best interests of its constituents, the environment, and Milwaukee County above petty politics.
Two weeks ago, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele vetoed just two out of a total of 66 amendments the County Board made to the 2016 Milwaukee County Budget. The vetoes could not have been more unrelated. One veto addressed public safety, while the other veto addressed a proposed increase in funding to repair the Estabrook Dam. Yet, the County Board decided to suspend the rules that typically ensure a fair democratic process and vetting of individual issues on their own merits, and forced all Board members to vote on whether or not to override vetoes for these two unrelated issues together in the same vote.
Why? The original amendment to restore $4 million dollars to the County Sheriff’s office budget passed through the County Board 17-0 the week before. It was clear from the beginning that the Board would override any veto of the $4 million. However, the original amendment to include an additional $750,000 for the repair of the Estabrook Dam with an added fish passage structure only passed in a 10-7 vote. It is unlikely that the Board would have had enough votes to override the County Executive’s veto of that additional funding if they would have been allowed to vote on it alone. It was an underhanded move that, once again, prevented the County Board from actually taking a clean vote on whether or not to dedicate yet more funding to repair the aging Dam.
Contrary to what some County Supervisors believe, the repair of the Estabrook Dam is not inevitable. The policy surrounding the Dam has changed several times in the last few years, but never from a clean vote by the entire County Board, carefully considering the pros and cons of various alternatives. When the opportunity presented itself, Chairman Lipscomb stepped in to make it impossible for Board Supervisors to fairly represent their constituents.
The proposal to combine the two vetoes came from Supervisor Willie Johnson, Jr., who spoke to the fact that many of his constituents had written him and told him they wanted the Dam removed. Supervisor Johnson somehow thinks repairing the Estabrook Dam would decrease flood risk and increase fishing opportunities for families in his district. It will not. It will have the opposite effect.
Repairing the Dam will lead to a poorer quality fishery due to less effective fish passage and poorer water quality in the impoundment. This will mean less fishing opportunities for residents to catch recreationally or for subsistence. Repairing the Dam means increased risk of flooding for homeowners upstream of the Dam. Fiscally, the amendment will add another $750,000 to the already large cost of repairing and operating the Dam in order to include a fish passage, which has not yet been designed to comply with Federal and State laws. The total cost of dam repair is now estimated at $6.2 million. After20 years, the expected lifetime of the aging Dam, additional millions would need to be spent on a permanent solution and its likely additional funds would be requested for dredging of sediment accumulation, so they can continue to use the impoundment for motorized boating.
While we all can agree with his sentiments to do what’s best for those most adversely affected by the Dam, Supervisor Johnson is clearly working with inaccurate information. Ultimately, he voted not only against the wishes of many of his own constituents, but also against those families whose best interests he was trying to protect because of misinformation or because Theodore Lipscomb asked him to.
With so many needs in Milwaukee County this year, and every year, it is hard to believe the County Board really wants to spend so much money on a structure that benefits so few residents at such big cost to so many. Repairing the Dam is an increased burden to all Milwaukee County residents, not a benefit.
Milwaukee County should spend the proposed money for the Estabrook Dam in any number of ways that are more beneficial to a larger number of County residents. One example is the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system, a project that avoids adverse environmental impacts from highway expansion by efficiently and effectively connecting county residents to jobs, or repairing the bridge in Lincoln Park, which the County is asking local residents to pay for.
The Milwaukee County budget is full of proposed unfunded projects that would improve the health of our rivers AND our communities. Repairing the Estabrook Dam does neither. It’s well past time to take it down.