“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
Next month, the City will start its annual budget process. As the Council reviews the Mayor’s proposed budget and plans amendments, we will be tasked with carefully weighing every aspect of the budget in order to formulate the most impactful agenda possible. This is an arduous process that requires making difficult decisions.
Our community faces a myriad of challenging issues and oftentimes they are seen as separate and competing. For example, there are stakeholders who want to focus on workforce development, some prioritize healthcare and others are safety. Activists and change makers are working to address these challenges and policymakers should and can support their efforts. However, there is one important fact that we need to keep at the forefront in order to make sure that we are making the best decisions related to development of the city budget: all of these things are interconnected. Bringing systems thinking into the process will help all involved better understand where key connection points lie and invest appropriately.
There has been elevated community interest in the budget process this year. I am excited to see more constituent voices at the table as we craft the budget to address the needs and obligations required to operate our city.
Last year’s budget focused on several priorities: safety, economic opportunity and employment, child health and educational success, and preserving city assets. Each of these broader priority areas is integral to supporting a vibrant and strong city and each drill into more specific areas of need that articulate our investment in the things that impact our daily quality of life and create opportunity for growth. This is also where it gets challenging to understand where and how much we should invest in these areas. Much of what is allocated annually is contractually constrained. That means how much we can invest in other specific areas are the spaces where discussion related to how we address some our potentially conflicting priorities lie.
Last year, just like every year during the budget process, council members made amendments to the budget to address the priorities of their constituencies. My colleagues and I made amendments to improve our streets, bring more resources to a beleaguered Health Department to support critical community level investments to address gun violence and lead, and provided funding to build community center hubs in Promise Zone neighborhoods where crime and blight challenge positive neighborhood development. These are great investments, but each came with a tradeoff. More money for health programs, less police officers. This trade off can polarize stakeholders who support one investment over another. This is where we need to be tactical in our approach and make sure we understand how these things interconnect to help us decide when, where, and how to make the best investments.
The systems that make up a city can be likened the systems of the body. Many of us have experienced having an injury or illness that seems to be localized and affects one area of the body. I have experienced numbness and pain in my right hand. I would ice it, rub it and take medication. Nothing seemed to resolve the numbness and discomfort I would experience. Based upon my experience, my hand would seem to be the issue. I spent a lot of time and money trying to alleviate the problem. Then one day my doctor decided to do an MRI of my upper body to find out if there could be another cause. Turns out I had a slightly compressed area in my neck that was pressing on a nerve, causing the problems in my hand. Intervention in the right place resolved and improved problems experienced in a totally different part of my body. And just like the body, studying the interconnectedness of our city system will help us understand how all of these factors interact and influence each other and can lead us to better decisions on how to intervene.
Municipal government is the brain of our city system. Other parts of our system: the private sector, educational, non-profit and faith-based institutions, neighborhoods and most importantly our people represent some of the other parts of city’s “body” and all play important roles in making sure the system is well and whole.
When one part is damaged it affects the whole. But as the brain we must be better at directing and caring for the whole system. Through the budgeting process we must make sure we are thoughtful about the funding priorities that establish a framework for how the whole system must function. Creating a budget that supports and invests in high performing initiatives and programs, develops capacity in other parts of our city’s system, and builds leveraged connections between the different components of our infrastructure will help to ensure that we have a high functioning system that will make Milwaukee a strong city.
I invite you to join us for the 2020 Preliminary Budget Hearing taking place on Thursday, August 14 from 6 p.m. to 7:30pm at the Zeidler Municipal Building, 841 North Broadway, Room 102. We need your input.