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Assembly passes Milwaukee County Board reform (UPDATE)

By Dan Shaw

State Assembly Democrats warned Wednesday that reform for one county in the state easily could mean the same thing for any municipality.

But that was not enough to stop the Assembly from voting 59-39 along party lines in favor of the Republican-sponsored bill that would make various reforms to Milwaukee County government. The Senate Committee on Elections and Urban Affairs earlier Wednesday voted 3-2 in favor of the Senate version of the reform bill.

State Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, during the full Assembly hearing warned those who support the reform bill that they will be setting a precedent that could come back to harm them. Other Democrats echoed her thoughts.

“Milwaukee is the most populous county in our state,” said state Rep. Stephen Smith, D-Shell Lake. “Whatever is done to Milwaukee can be done to any village, city or county in our constituency.”

Assembly Bill 85 would schedule a referendum on a proposal to cap most county supervisors’ salaries at the average per capita income for Milwaukee County, which is roughly $24,000. Supervisors’ salaries now are $50,679.

At the same time, the bill would not allow votes on its other provisions, which include proposals to reduce the length of supervisors’ terms from four years to two, restrict the board’s budget to being no more than 0.4 percent of the county’s portion of the property tax levy and amending various state statutes to draw a brighter line between the responsibilities of the supervisors and the county executive.

The bill went before the full Assembly on April 17, but Democrats in that chamber were able to use a procedural maneuver to prevent a final vote on the legislation that day. State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, and a former member of the Milwaukee County Board, said he thinks the full Senate will take up its version of the bill May 14.

If it passes then, it would have to be signed by the governor before becoming law.

The Milwaukee County Board also put forward a reform proposal. Although conceding some of the state bills’ changes, such as two-year term limits, the county proposal tempers others, such as proposed cuts to supervisors’ salaries. The board proposal would cut salaries by 20 percent. Rather than tying the board’s operating budget to the tax levy, the county proposal calls for cutting the board’s $6.6 million budget in half.

That proposal survived a veto attempt Monday from County Executive Chris Abele and is being drafted into ordinance form to be enforceable.

Despite the concerns from Democrats that state involvement in county reform sets a dangerous precedent, Sanfelippo thanked members of both parties for breaking a different precedent.

“In the last four months, we have had more debate about whether there is a need for reform in Milwaukee government” than the entire time he was on the board, he said.

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