On September 27, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele presented his proposed budget for 2013. In his address to the County Board, he painted a glorious picture of the budget, from fixing long-neglected parks to halting the descent of the transit system to actually recognizing and rewarding county employees. He’s promising that his budget will do everything short of washing the breakfast dishes for everyone in the county.
His budget has the usual suspects swooning in admiration, with one columnist going as far as stating that Abele has the “courage of his convictions.”
Like a great illusionist, Abele tries to draw one’s attentions to amazing feats of unexplained wonder, while trying to hide the truth from his audience.
One example is his statements towards the parks. Abele stated that he has added to the parks budget and is going to renovate the long neglected and boarded up Moody Park as well as do major work on a number of other parks. These are all things that we can easily support. However, we also agree with Dan Cody, who points out that Abele’s approach to the parks is disappointing and rather misleading. The money that he is touting is money that has been sitting around for years and was earmarked solely for Moody Park. Abele is finally getting around to using it, but is spreading it around to other parks as well, still giving short shrift to Moody Park.
As Cody also points out, Abele’s budget also lays off nearly another hundred workers, which will not help in maintaining safety or appearance in the parks. Can we expect more scenes like the ones we saw two years ago, of pictures of the parks where garbage is everywhere?
Furthermore, Abele doesn’t address the big picture of where he is going to find a sustainable funding source for the parks. This glaring omission should give one pause to wonder if he is fixing up the parks only to make it easier to privatize them down the road.
Abele’s approach to the transit system is very similar to the one he took with the parks. He is touting that he did not cut routes or raise fares. However, looking at the actual budget shows that he is cutting more than $7.5 million from the paratransit system. He bases this on an estimated 325,000 less rides being given, but does not explain why he is making that assumption.
And as with the parks system, Abele tries to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room – that fact that without a dedicated funding source, transit is going to receiving a massive blow in 2014. Abele’s plan for that eventuality is not to find a dedicated funding source, but to ask Scott Walker to restore the cuts that he made for the county transit system. He might as well ask the sun not to rise in the east tomorrow while he’s at it.
While Abele’s approach to most of the budget is rather neglectful, doing the minimum as he kicks several cans down the road, his approach to his employees is fully of cynical disdain.
Here is what Abele said in his speech about the workers:
One of the big challenges in our budget this year is rising health care costs. While those costs have increased, the employee share of total costs is not going up.
The last number of years has been difficult for Milwaukee County workers. Like many public sector employees, they are unfairly criticized for budget problems that have been made by elected leaders. During these tough budget times, workers have been asked to make sacrifices through wage freezes and furlough days.
I’m happy to say this budget lessens that load. Not only are there no furlough days but employees this year will receive cost of living and step increases. My budget also includes money to reward those workers who go above and beyond.
The Human Resources Department is working on a performance bonus plan that will recognize employees in all departments who truly shine. Public service is a noble calling and this is a small way to thank those who go the extra mile.
It is true that there are no furlough days, mostly because he learned his lesson by having to pay out for the illegal furlough days from 2010 and still having the payout for 2011 hanging over his head, an issue he has failed to address in his budget proposal. The money owed to the workers is still continuing to gain interest at a 12% rate, compounded daily.
And unless the raises that he discussed are 20%, like those he gives to his cronies, they will not come anywhere near the cuts he has in store for the workers. He is raising health care premiums, deductibles and copays to the tune of approximately $2,500 per worker, or a little more of a $1 per hour pay cut, on top of the cuts he imposed over the last year, which far exceed those outlined in Act 10, which isn’t even a valid law anymore.
Abele is proposing to offset a $9.3 million hike in health care costs by charging employees and retirees $10.5 million. The extra money will be used to cover some of the many holes in his budget.
It should also be noted that in the 2012 budget, Abele removed the HMO option for county employees, forcing the entire workforce into the much more expensive PPO system. Abele continues that in his 2013 budget.
One of the issues of greatest concern is Abele’s plan on initiating a “merit system,” in which he will supposedly reward employees that “go that extra mile.” All of the officials, elected or appointed, and employees in general that MCF had spoken to in the past week have laughed in derision when this subject was brought up to them. No one expects that the half a million dollars will make it far past the executive’s suite or his cabinet. This move is commonly seen as being a legalized form of political patronage and cronyism.
Not only does Abele’s “merit system” have the smack of being cronyism, but it is also illegal. It violates a number of county ordinances, from the civil service codes to aspects of the labor contract which Abele had just signed into law. It also flies in the face of Milwaukee County’s Code of Ethics, which explicitly forbids any county official or employee from giving or receiving anything of worth.
What makes this especially egregious is that the fact that Abele tried to start a cynical campaign to have this law struck down, using the untimely and tragic death of Sheriff Deputy Sergio Aleman, whose widow is also a county employee as an excuse. Abele’s office was telling people that they would be in violation of the ethics code if they contributed to Deputy Aleman’s memorial fund unless the law was tweaked to allow this sort of thing.
It is safe to assume that if this system is passed by the Board and implemented, the unions will be filing a lawsuit to stop it.
Another issue of concern which leaps out is Abele again trying to put limitations on the back drop benefit enacted during the Tom Ament administration more than ten years ago. While his motive for doing so is commendable, the reality makes it less so. Over the past decade, the county has literally spent tens of millions of dollars in fighting the lavish pension benefits that Ament had bestowed on the workers. Each time, the unions have filed complaints, grievances and lawsuits regarding these moves and each time the unions have prevailed. The county has recently chosen to appeal the most recent of these rulings despite being advised by their lawyers that they will lose again, adding to the amount of money being squandered.
One courthouse insider said that the Abele administration is taking a page from Walker’s playbook, in the sense that they are hoping to get these cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where such matters are decided on the ideology of the conservative majority rather than on the law. The odd thing about this is that the cases will probably end up going to federal court where the original rulings will be restored. Perhaps Abele is counting on the unions going bankrupt before them.
Finally, there should be concern about Abele’s refusal to raise taxes this year. While no one likes to pay taxes, Abele should be fully aware that this is the last year, per state law, that the county has to build a buffer for the upcoming cuts in shared revenue. His willful failure to do so would leave the county in very dire straits in years to come where vital services and public safety will be greatly damaged.
It is this common them of a lack of foresight which seems to permeate Abele’s entire budget and his management style to begin with. Perhaps it is the fact that he grew up without having to worry about money that limits his ability to look ahead and plan accordingly. Perhaps it is due to his following the agenda of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the plutocrat club which Abele belongs to, which calls for the systematic dismantling of Milwaukee County, opening the door for his friends to gain greater control and more money even as it further hurts the taxpayers and citizens of the county.
The county budget itself is available on the county’s website.
For your convenience, we have also made the County Board’s review of the budget available as well.
Then contact your county supervisor and tell them that they need to make up for Abele’s lack of foresight and his failure to respect the people he is supposed to represent.
Otherwise, we will be stuck with Abele’s smoke and mirrors budget, in which we will be buying the mirrors and left holding the smoke.