By PrincessSafiya Byers
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
The mayor’s 2023 budget proposal comes with yet another warning: Milwaukee’s fiscal crisis is approaching critical mass.
Library services along with almost every function of city government, including fire and police services, face trims in the $1.7 billion budget proposal.
“These are quality-of-life issues,” said Devin Anderson, the membership and coalition manager with the African American Roundtable. “I’ve never walked into an empty library; it’s a service people need.”
Here is what you need to know.
When Mayor Cavalier Johnson unveiled his 2023 budget in September, he said the document represented fiscal problems coming home to roost for the city.
“It’s important to keep in mind that this didn’t just sneak up on us,” he said. “No one should be surprised; we’ve been warned about our fiscal condition for years.”
According to deep-dive reports by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, in 2009, 2016 and again in 2022, the city’s financial crisis is reaching critical mass.
“For more than a decade, the Forum has warned that Milwaukee’s growing structural imbalance would cause it to reach a breaking point without comprehensive fiscal restructuring. Now, that time is nearly here,” the Forum’s 2022 report said.
It noted four critical challenges in Milwaukee’s fiscal landscape: an increasingly unhealthy revenue mix, diminished capacity to sustain core services, depleted reserves and lingering long-term obligations.
It lists the city’s pension at the top of the list of concerns.
Milwaukee city workers are promised a pension once they retire, but the city’s pension plan has taken hits and will need more funding to cover future pensions.
According to Rob Henken, the president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, if the city can’t fund the city’s pension plan, it will have to cut more public-service workers and that will affect the lives of those who need emergency personnel or drive on the roads every day.
“People need to know how troubling the fiscal cliff heading this way is,” Henken said. “For many years the city has been able to avoid cuts to the police budget, and now it is impossible to spare any department.”
Federal aid is providing a two-year cushion, with planned injections of approximately $80 million annually from the city’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act funding. But even with that, Johnson’s 2023 budget will raise fees, eliminate 17 police officer positions (1% of the authorized force), two fire engines and cut library hours, among other changes.
Henken said the real crisis will hit in 2025 when the city no longer has federal funding as a cushion.
The Rev. Gregory Lewis, an organizer with Souls to the Polls WI, said he doesn’t need to read the budget to know he will be unsurprised and disappointed with what is happening in the city.
“We (Souls to the Polls) protested and screamed about the city’s finances for over a year, and no one wanted to hear it,” he said. “Now the chickens have come home to roost, and everyone is frustrated and waiting for the current mayor to fix everything that happened before him.”
Lewis said he’s nervous about what cuts will look like for his community.
“It’ll affect everything from police response times to garbage pickup. Milwaukee will become a second-class city.”
Some elected officials and a host of others don’t agree with the proposed cuts.
The African American Roundtable is once again calling for participatory budgeting involving Milwaukee residents as the proposal moves to the Common Council.
“The residents of Milwaukee should have the power to determine what we want to see in our communities,” Anderson said.
He said it’s disappointing to see “the same status quo budgets the city has had for years.”
Johnson’s proposal does support the Office of Violence Prevention’s violence Interrupters, with funding of $750,000 and proposes almost doubling funding for the Milwaukee Health Department.
But something has to happen if city funding is to be sustainable and keep pace with needs.
Johnson said “the city has a better relationship with the state than any time in the past 15 years” and that’s what it needs to move forward.
According to Johnson, the state has strict rules on what a city can and cannot tax, and because of those rules, Milwaukee is unable to raise the revenue it needs to function.
“I’m not naive enough to believe we’ll get around this issue without partnership from the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “We’ve been talking, and they understand Milwaukee’s situation.”
Observers note that this tension has been around awhile. The state Legislature is dominated by Republicans and Milwaukee is viewed as a Democratic stronghold.
Johnson is obviously hoping to get beyond the political divides, as an ailing Milwaukee does not benefit Wisconsin either.
Milwaukee Budget Director Nik Kovac has said that Milwaukee receives $155 million less annually in shared revenue than in 2000. Gov. Tony Evers has said that fixing the relationship between the city and the state will be a priority in state budgeting for him.
Implicit in Johnson’s argument about the need for state legislative involvement: Imagine what happens for the state if the city’s fiscal decline triggers commensurate economic decline?
The mayor’s budget must be approved by the Common Council and its committees, so it does not represent the final product.
The full council will adopt a final 2023 city budget in November.