“The President’s Perpective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
Imagine, you’re a resident of the Thurston Woods neighborhood in the (fabulous) 1st Aldermanic District. After a big rainstorm, you wake up in the morning and see that the sewer is flooding all over the street and there is standing water near the curb. This can attract mosquitos, breed bacteria, and cause other issues that you would rather not deal with. You call the office to let us know of the situation and we send someone from DPW out there within a couple of hours to vacuum out your sewer and make sure the water clears up. Something that you probably could not do on your own is now made into a simple task by the office. At its core, this is what civil service is all about. Taking an issue, however major or minor, and resolving it when you as a resident do not have the capacity.
As President of the Common Council, I am privileged to work on many City-wide legislative projects and think about solutions for a number of challenges that face this City. In terms of importance, however, none come even remotely close to the passage of our City’s budget. Although the dollar amount appears to be dwarfed by the size of our state and federal budgets, we, as your local elected officials, are tasked each year with figuring out the best way to spend $1.8 billion of taxpayer money. Your money.
Throughout this process, we do our best to keep your best interests in mind and make decisions that reflect the concerns of our district; however, it is hard to do that when we are not actively hearing from our constituents during the process. At this year’s open budget hearing, myself, the Mayor, the Treasurer, and then entire Common Council sat in the Chambers prepared to listen to Milwaukeeans and learn which issues are most important to you, the taxpayers, whose money we are about to spend. Traditionally, we see dozens of people flood the chamber to voice their concerns. To my disbelief, only four voices spoke up.
I fear that we, as a Council, have not done a good enough job talking about what the City Budget means to you in your everyday life. I want to take the time to rectify that lapse in communication.
Maybe it isn’t your sewer backing up. Maybe it is leaves on the street blocking your parking spot, potholes jolting your car on the way to work, trash and furniture all over your alley, branches falling from a dead tree on a City lot. Regardless, civil servants at the City are dedicated to resolving these issues. And the capacity for civil servants to do this rests completely in the hands of the budget.
Over the past few months, numerous constituents have called with concerns that are not resolved as quickly as vacuuming out a sewer, such as street lights going out and speed bump installations being too slow. What myself and staff members are asked time and time again is “well why is this taking so long?” “Can’t you tell them to hurry up?” My sincere wish is that I could snap my fingers and have every concern taken care of at a moment’s notice, but there are factors behind the scenes that make this difficult.
The reason why street lights were out for days at a time is sometimes because the City has a shortage of electricians. The City is short on electricians because trained electrical contractors can get paid more money in the private sector. If you care about how quickly your street lights go back on, you should push your elected officials to increase the pay of electricians so that we can retain those employees and have more people on hand to turn your lights back on.
If you want a speed bump installed on your block tomorrow instead of in six months, you should push your elected officials to budget more money to fund speed bumps and an increased number of crews to install them. A street light and a speed hump may seem like small projects, but lighting makes for a safer environment and speed humps reduce reckless driving–two big priorities for residents.
Each neighborhood in the city of Milwaukee has its own priorities. Our budget cannot possibly please everyone. However, it is impossible to please anyone if we never hear what you want from us. Our budget decisions don’t just affect the macro-level policy debates we have in this City; they affect things that can impact you on a daily basis. We need to hear from you to ensure that our collective impact is the most productive.
The concept of a politician telling you to use your voice is nothing new and might be something that you as a resident have tuned out. Maybe you think “my one voice doesn’t hold weight” or “my elected official won’t listen to me—they will do whatever they were going to do before.”
This mistrust is unfortunately justified by the actions of some people that hold public office, but I want to remind you that at the foundation of our democracy is the power that constituents hold over their elected officials. You are my boss. You decide if I stay in this job or not. You pay my salary with your tax dollars. You, ultimately control our agenda.
One voice does hold power. One vote does count. And that power is magnified if you can get organized. If you can get your entire block unified on a legitimate issue that can be addressed with definitive actions you can create change. You can turn the most non-responsive person in the world into your biggest advocate if you get organized enough to decide whether or not they will get re-elected. Never lose sight of that power and make sure to take particular advantage of it during the budget debates.
The 2019 budget is already in the books, but my call to you today is to look at what we did and think about it. We established an Inspector General Position to provide oversight for City Departments so that we do not have another crisis of departmental mismanagement. Our amended budget provides new money to the Health Department to add four Community Outreach Liaisons and one Health Project Coordinator while creating a $425,000 special purpose account to address elevated blood level follow-up and hazard remediation, family and community health visits, and communicable disease prevention. We set aside $1 million more to the Local Street Reconstruction Program to fill more potholes and pave more roads. Money was allocated for the creation of COP houses, to help increase police presence in Milwaukee Promise Zone (MPZ) areas with highest crime. $200,000 was put into a new fund to help entrepreneurs bring new fresh food solutions to areas without grocery stores. How do you feel about those decisions?
Look at the facts, what is actually happening. Look into the truth behind the news coverage. Call your alderperson and ask for clarification if something is confusing. Find the reality of the situation and then react. Take a position and track what we do. And then, in September 2019 get ready to tell us about how we can do a better job with the budget in 2020. This is how our democracy stays healthy.