Support for reforming the Milwaukee County Board – or, more generally, county government – was strong, among some two dozen people who turned out for a town hall meeting Saturday.
But sentiment on draft state legislation to sharply cut county supervisor salaries and slash the board’s budget was far from clear-cut.
The session at the Dretzka Park clubhouse featured ideas such as cutting supervisors’ pay and benefits, downsizing the board and even eliminating county government. There were also calls for preserving the board’s full-time status and questions about whether radical changes to the board’s structure were justified.
“The only way you are going to get a sweetheart deal like this is in public office,” Ralph Denson said, after Supervisor Deanna Alexander checked off the board’s $50,679 pay and health and pension benefits.
Alexander, in her first year on the board, called the meeting to sound out constituents on the county reform issue.
Others said county government had become redundant, its costs too high. Volunteers could be found to do the work of supervisor for free, one woman suggested.
“Milwaukee County is a mess – that’s a fact,” said Jason Fields, a former state legislator from Milwaukee and part of a group headed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee that is pressing for the county reform legislation. Fields didn’t elaborate, but others seeking the measure point to the decade-old county pension scandal, problems at the county’s Mental Health Complex and ongoing financial pressures as reasons to target the County Board for a lesser role.
Curtiss Harris questioned whether supervisors paid part-time salaries would devote the necessary time to study county issues. Pointing to the county’s reputation for having a zoo, airport and parks that are top-notch, Harris questioned the need for a big fix.
“Where is the county a mess?” he said.
A draft bill co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) calls for an April 2 binding referendum on cutting county supervisors’ pay to $15,000 or less and eliminating their benefits. The same bill would directly slash the board’s budget by about $5.4 million, leaving it $1.1 million.
Alexander said she favors reforms but hoped to offer alternatives that might stave off the state legislation, which she described as a knife to the throats of supervisors. She agreed the board’s $6.5 million annual budget was too large, but said the $5.4 million cut was too severe. The board doesn’t need two lobbyists, Alexander said, as one example of a place for a possible trim.
She also suggested transferring the board’s research analysts to the county clerk as a more neutral arbiter of how the research staff is deployed. And Alexander said perhaps the board could act on its own to reduce its size.
Supervisors voted to go from 19 to 18 members in 2011, in a redistricting that’s done every 10 years following a census. That was a far smaller reduction in members than some critics were seeking. Under state law, the board could do another redistricting before the next census.
The advice was mixed when Alexander polled those in attendance at the end of the session. Most urged her to take an active role on the reform issue, with some recommending cuts in board pay or the number of supervisors and a few urging maintaining the status quo.
Jeff Roemer said it would be better for changes to be made locally rather than by the Legislature.