Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley 2021 Recommended Budget Address to County Board
Today, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley will present the 2021 recommended budget to the Milwaukee County Board. The following are the remarks of the County Executive as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, Clerk George Christianson, Comptroller Scott Manske, and the entire County Board. It is a pleasure to present the 2021 recommended budget to you all this afternoon.
Five months ago, I was sworn-in as the first African-American elected to lead the county and I was keenly aware of not just the symbolism, but the responsibility that comes with the role. We continue to face an unprecedented public health crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge in front of us is to do all we can to keep residents safe, get people back to work, and rebuild what has been lost. Ensuring that Milwaukee County is able to weather and regroup from this crisis is still my first priority as Milwaukee County Executive, but it is not my only priority.
The crisis has laid bare other inequities that had been stewing beneath the surface, that must now be addressed. Milwaukee County acknowledges that years of intentional, institutional and systemic racism have worked to the advantage of white residents and to the disadvantage of people of color. We also acknowledge that we have the power to make change. These are unprecedented times we find ourselves in and it is time for us to respond in-kind with bold and unprecedented measures to being moving the wheels of change.
The budget process was extremely collaborative, with elected officials and budget staff working together to understand the challenges that lie ahead due to the pandemic and then jointly problem solving using our racial equity goals as their guidepost.
I was pleased to have a great start in this first budget, and I hope to see this kind of collaboration continue and the relationship between my office and the county board grow stronger. We are our strongest when we are working together to make sure that everyone does better. Although we do not agree on everything, it is good to know that we have all committed to one vision and are moving together in that direction.
Last year, the Milwaukee County Board passed the nation’s first declaration of racism as a public health crisis and 80 communities followed suit. The vision and leadership of the board continues to blaze a trail for others to follow, this year we passed on ordinance committing the County to advancing racial equity and eliminating health disparities. Thanks to the action of the board we’ve declared this new way of doing business the law of the land going forward and I am excited to work toward these goals together.
The 2021 Recommended Budget sets Milwaukee County on a course of change by putting into action our shared vision to achieve racial equity. The budget was created through the lens of our racial equity focused strategic plan--the first strategic plan to be developed in Milwaukee County government in over 20 years. Change is difficult, and with all difficult work it takes time to see the fruits of your labor, but this budget takes the next steps in the direction of achieving our stated goals – it is the just the beginning of the work needed to reorient the scarce resources we do have to address problems upstream and create positive health outcomes for residents downstream.
This budget puts into action the three focus areas of our strategic plan:
The first strategic focus area aims to change the make-up of the influencers and decision makers within Milwaukee County government to include a variety of viewpoints, experiences, backgrounds, and interests so that they represent that full diversity of all our residents.
Over the next year, the Office on African American Affairs will play a critical role in Milwaukee County’s strategic efforts to advance inclusion. OAAA will continue racial equity trainings for all staff and expand on the development of racial equity tools and resource guides. OAAA will also work across county departments to improve operations, communication and hiring and promotion practices.
In order to remain competitive in the search to intentionally include a diverse array of top tier talent, the 2021 budget provides a new look at pay increases largely based on findings from the County Comptroller’s Audit Division’s report, Pulling Back the Curtain: A Look at Milwaukee County’s Workforce through Racial and Gender Equity Lenses from 2009 to 2019. This report highlighted substantial overrepresentation of white workers in the top third of County earners, and an overrepresentation of African American workers in the bottom third of County earners. With this disparity in mind, the 2021 budget provides a half percent increase at midyear for workers in salary ranges averaging over $100,000 per year, and a 1 percent increase for workers in salary ranges averaging below $100,000.
Additionally, the 2021 budget will make good on the 2020 promise to bring trades professionals closer to market rate with a targeted pay equity increase. The COVID-19 pandemic put this increase on hold, but our pipe fitters, carpenters, electricians and others in the skilled trades will see an increase at the start of 2021. Similarly, targeted pay increases for correctional officers at the House of Correction in 2019 have made a considerable impact on staff retention. In 2021, the HOC reduced its estimates of overtime expenses, allowing for both better use of tax dollars and investments in programming that prepares those in custody to successfully re-enter the community.
Milwaukee County has continued to prioritize total compensation for employees. For the third year in a row, healthcare costs are projected to remain flat over the coming year and the 2021 budget does not include any major changes to benefits or pension contribution rates.
The second strategic focus area seeks to bridge the gap in the health disparities that make Milwaukee County the second least healthy county in Wisconsin. Our state ranks at or near the bottom of the nation for racial disparities in unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, incarceration, school suspension, high school graduations, and economic mobility. Every year, the Milwaukee metro-political area is listed at or near the top of most-segregated communities in the country. Our budget prioritizes resolving disparities by addressing the needs of the whole person or whole families.
Milwaukee County is advancing $1 million for a “No Wrong Door” model of customer service to create easier access to quality care. Anyone, regardless of age or ability, can and will be served no matter how they enter the system. This budget takes advantage of the benefits of integrating the Department on Aging and Veterans Services into the Department of Health and Human Services to enhance our service delivery model so services and processes are centered around the convenience and needs of the individual.
With the departments coming together, we can expand and invest in critical services, sharing resources, knowledge and cross-training. The changes, along with other realignment, have allowed the Department on Aging to mitigate any reduction in services.
Older residents and veterans have unique needs that deserve proper attention, and Milwaukee County plans no reduction in the services that address those needs, but they also need assistance with housing, food, transportation, energy assistance just like any other resident may need – especially in the middle of a public health crisis. This is a key part of the puzzle to achieving racial equity, increasing access to services that focusing on the upstream needs of our residents to prevent them from running into trouble later.
The Department on Aging is also creating three new direct service positions: An Elder Benefits Specialist and two Human Service Workers. The Elder Benefits Specialist, the first of its kind in the department's history, will provide Milwaukee County with a central "go-to" staffer who can help older adults and their families understand Medicare services and Medicare savings programs.
The creation of these new direct service positions elevates the needs of older adults in Milwaukee County —and integration provides the opportunity to take care of all the needs of each individual.
In addition to the creation of three frontline workers for the Department on Aging, the budget continues to fund additional weekend meals for homebound seniors provided in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The department also explores the use of additional nutritional counseling and education to improve older adult health and wellbeing.
Social programming at the five county-owned seniors centers will continue five days per week as it has in the past. However, because of anticipated impacts of the pandemic and the public health risks of older adults gathering in person, the department expects to provide virtual programming at a minimum thought the first quarter of 2021.
The final strategic focus area, investing in equity, is probably the most important piece of the puzzle to creating the change we want to see in Milwaukee County. It reimagines how Milwaukee County invests its resources to address generations of racist practices and policies like redlining, exclusionary zoning, and discriminatory lending that helped create the segregation in our county that remains today and contributes to some of the largest racial disparities in income, health, and other socioeconomic measures in the nation.
Providing access to jobs, school and appointments for tens of thousands of residents, Milwaukee County’s transit network is essential to advancing health and racial equity. In 2020, the Federal Transit Administration approved up to $40.9 million in federal funds for the East-West Bus Rapid Transit project. This line will extend from downtown Milwaukee to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, creating a critical connection to jobs. Upon execution of an FTA Small Starts Grant Agreement award, MCTS will begin construction of BRT stations in 2021 and procure the equipment necessary to begin BRT operations in late 2022. The BRT project will strengthen the entire transit network and aid in connecting residents to opportunities throughout Milwaukee County.
Investing in equity means prioritizing local solutions. This philosophy is particularly evident through Milwaukee County’s approach to youth justice reform. I’m happy to announce that placements of youth to state-run Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile justice facilities continue to trend downward. The recommended budget assumes an average day population of 29, which reflects a decrease of 21 compared to the 2020 budget. This will result in decreased expenses of about $2.9 million. With the eventual closure of Lincoln Hills, $1 million of this savings is reinvested into community-based services for youth. Specifically, the funds will support a Credible Messenger Program offering emotional first aid, violence interruption and mediation, as well as an Achievement Center providing vocational services, work placements, apprenticeships and job certifications for youth and their family members. The initiative would be also supported through partnerships with schools, community organizations and other public agencies.
We still have a long way to go in transforming our approach to keeping our communities safe and making sure our residents stay of the system. The tragic events in our own backyard that made national headlines are a reminder of how far we must go – and the almost nightly protests by Milwaukee County residents are a clear call for change. In response, some have called for a large portion of the Milwaukee County Sheriff Office’s budget be reallocated to fund needed social services.
However, state mandated services and funding for the Milwaukee County Jail make up over half of the budget for the Sherriff’s office. In addition, the cost to operate the jail during the pandemic has increased in order to maintain the safety its current population.
I don’t stand in opposition to finding ways to fund more mental health services, eviction prevention services, parks, and all the other services we know create healthy residents and safe communities. Our budget tackled the tall task of reorienting service delivery models to ensure all residents have housing, health care, and transportation. Investing in equity is difficult when our hands are tied by the demands of a structural deficit and a pandemic, but it is with intention that our budget manages to continue critical investments in transportation and community-based solutions so that groups that have been historically underserved can thrive, not just survive.
Considering this reality, I am hopeful that you will see the investments we’ve made in this budget not only reflects the wisdom of our times but takes some of the first steps towards the future of Milwaukee County.
The 2021 budget also implements the Milwaukee County Parks workforce development program, UpLift Milwaukee, which was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. UpLift Milwaukee advances diversity within the Parks workforce, increases access to Parks employment for communities of color and those living in concentrated poverty, and creates a new career pipeline opportunity for traditionally underserved individuals.
Finally, this year COVID-19 had a tremendous downward effect on attendance and revenue generated by the Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee County Parks, the Milwaukee County Transit System and Mitchell International Airport. These revenue shortages contributed significantly to the 2021 budget gap.
Impacts to the Zoo included a temporary closure of operations followed by phased re-openings with limitations on attendance, as well as reduced opportunities to host large events. These closures and limitations led to reduced Zoo revenue collections in 2020, and the result was a need to identify savings through staff furloughs, hiring and spending freezes, and other methods. Yet in the spirit of equity, the 2021 budget shifts a larger portion of the Zoo’s marketing strategy, advertising, social media and public relations to a broader and more diverse audience to help foster a more inclusive community.
Parks was also hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to all-time staffing lows, spending freezes, reduced operational service levels, and revenue losses from closures and the delayed opening of most Parks' revenue-generating facilities and services.
To mitigate possible COVID-19 related revenue deficits in 2021, Milwaukee County Parks and the Zoo have created segregated funds that are only accessible should the departments stay on track to meet their revenue goals. Administrators will work with the County Board and the Office of Performance, Strategy & Budget to monitor public health conditions and operational feasibility for these revenue generating functions. Failure to earn the revenues associated with the segregated operational funding will likely result in additional facility closures or other cost-cutting measures.
The 2021 budget includes no major changes to fixed route or paratransit service and once again bus fares are held at $2.25 cash and $2 with an M Card or using the mobile app. With the help of the Milwaukee County Board, swift allocations of CARES funding provided $54.9 million to help make up for lost revenues and decreased ridership due to the closing of schools, businesses and other local destinations. If not for these funds being made available to Milwaukee County for transit, MCTS would have faced a budget gap of over $12.1 million for 2021 due to the financial ramifications of the pandemic. The Transit system remains at risk of facing a large funding gap in future years if ridership levels do not return to historic levels before CARES funding for Transit is exhausted.
I’m proud to say we’ve taken these steps forward despite grappling with a growing structural deficit created by state-imposed funding limits and the growing cost of state-mandated services. Since 2012, Milwaukee County has faced cumulative budget gaps of approximately $320 million—an average of roughly $30 million per year. We began this budget on the same trajectory, with an estimated $42.5 million gap, but once again we’ve weathered the storm by working together and using our vision of becoming the healthiest county in the state as our guide. However, in order to do the difficult work of creating real change, and fully achieve our vision, we need to secure a local, long-term funding solution.
Our region needs to thrive in order to remain an efficient partner and contributor to the rest of the state. We can be even stronger with a funding solution that removes the financial restraints we face every budget cycle.
The Board has been an instrumental partner in the Move Forward Milwaukee Coalition and I look forward to continuing to work with the board and the other coalition members to build on the momentum we’ve already generated to allow Milwaukee County its 19 municipalities to pursue a binding referendum for a 1 percent local option sales tax with property tax relief.
The increase in sales tax revenue would give the county the financial flexibility we need to focus on making greater investments in equity, instead of starting off in a hole and digging our way out.
Given the challenges we’ve faced this year, I am proud to recommend a budget that continues investments in children, and families, public safety, public transportation, neighborhood services, and the County’s workforce – all within a racial equity lens.
Now the budget is in your hands, the members of the County Board. As an optimist, I like to remind others that we all have the power to create change and the members of this body have the power to come together and advance our collective vision and take the next steps forward on our journey to achieve our goals.
With the implementation of a racial equity focused strategic plan Milwaukee County has every reason to feel optimistic that we can recover from the current public health crisis, improve outcomes for Milwaukee County residents, and be an even greater contributor to the state.
We know there is hard work still ahead, but this budget takes some of the first crucial steps in implementing a plan to achieve racial equity, improve health outcomes for all of our residents, and move towards the future as one county, stronger together.