By David Crowley
Milwaukee County Executive
Recent proposals from the legislature to improve local revenue conditions, including allowing Milwaukee County to issue a sales tax, are not only historic, but incredibly necessary as the demand for services across the state outpaces the ability local governments can pay for them.
These challenges are most urgent in our region. Milwaukee County spends $137 million per year on public safety services mandated by the state of Wisconsin. Mental health services have a state mandated expenditure floor of $53 million in tax levy. These state mandates will consumer our entire local levy by 2028 and pension costs continue to divert critical resources from these core public safety services.
In the County alone, our structural deficit is expected to exceed $100 million by 2028 without any action; under that scenario we would not have money for local needs.
A projected deficit of this size will inevitably lead to drastic service reductions, which will fall disproportionately upon those who rely on county services the most. My number one priority is keeping residents safe and healthy and that will be nearly impossible with the cuts that would take place without a fiscal fix.
The proposed legislation includes a provision to address Milwaukee County’s decades old pension problem and avoid a fiscal cliff through an additional sales tax for the County. Wisconsin exempts a long list of services and products from the sales tax, such as groceries, medicines, medical equipment, services (like an oil change or a haircut), and many other items. The exemptions reduce the burden on local families and instead target the visitors and commuters to Milwaukee County who are forecast to provide up to 30 percent of the revenue the new tax will bring.
Milwaukee County plays a critical role in delivering vital on-the-ground services. From the entire public safety continuum to additional core government services like transportation and health & human services, we are on the front lines in making sure residents are safe, healthy, and have opportunities to be successful.
Having no tax levy available for non-mandated services would be devastating and it would mean having to make deep cuts to the services people rely on each day to survive. In such a scenario, current non-mandated services like parks, public transit, emergency services, senior services, disability services, youth services, and cultural arts will face deep cuts to their budgets; and these services will look nothing like they do today.
Some of the quality-of-life problems I hear the most from residents like affordable housing, reliable public transit, accessible and affordable health services, and sustainability of the county-wide parks system will all worsen if a revenue solution is not found.
Losing Health & Human Services programs would be devastating as Milwaukee County plays a role in housing, health care, mental health care, behavioral health care with partnerships throughout Milwaukee County. Eliminating bus routes and specialized transit services would severely limit mobility for many residents who rely on public transit each day. Not to mention it would be a burden on local businesses who have employees and clientele who use our buses each day.
We don’thave many options to raise revenue at the scale of the problem. This historic proposal promises to get the County on stable financial footing by adding this additional source of revenue to free up tax levy to continue funding the services we currently have. We stand at a historical moment for the future of our region. The consequences of doing nothing would be devastating for Milwaukee County. The time is now for a long-term fix.