By Bill Clements
Special to The Daily Reporter
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and some county board members are trading barbs over Walker‘s decision to shift money during the past seven years from the county’s capital budget into the general operating budget.
The board members charge that Walker’s “diversion” of $113.4 million since 2003 has contributed to a large and growing amount of deferred maintenance on county facilities and contributed to the O’Donnell Park tragedy.
Walker, a GOP candidate for governor, counters that such charges are politically motivated and without merit.
The county’s capital budget pays for capital improvements as well as maintenance of county facilities — primarily parks and county-owned buildings such as the O’Donnell Park parking structure.
On June 24, a 13-ton piece of the facade of the O’Donnell Park structure broke off and fell 11 feet to the ground, killing 15-year-old Jared Kellner, who was on his way to Summerfest with a friend. His friend and the friend’s mother were injured.
Walker strongly defends his record of maintaining county properties — including the O’Donnell Park parking structure — while agreeing that he did “slow down” the capital budget by lowering the amount of sales tax dollars flowing into that budget, saying he did so because capital spending was out of control in the years before he took office.
Under the ordinance in effect before 2003 — the year Walker took office — that $113.4 million would have been spent to pay tax-supported debt service costs for capital projects, and any surplus dollars were required to be used to finance capital improvements, according to county budget documents.
But at Walker’s direction, the county board in 2003 changed the ordinance so that these sales and use tax revenue dollars would go into the general operating budget and be used to prepay county employee benefit costs, including employee pensions and health care expenses, or to supplement the Appropriation for Contingencies, according to the documents.
County Supervisors Chris Larson and John Weishan charge that Walker directed this change in budget policy to put more money into the county’s general budget to pay for employee benefits so that Walker could avoid the need to raise taxes.
Walker has never included a tax increase in his budget proposals, but the county board has raised taxes several times during his tenure, despite his objections.
“I don’t know that this tragedy would have happened if part of that $113.4 million had been spent on capital maintenance,” said Weishan, a consistent Walker critic. “He chose to divert that money into that part of the budget instead of raising taxes.”
Larson said Walker’s move was a case of a “shift of long-term dollars for short-term gains. Obviously, that’s not a recipe for success.”
Walker strongly denied the Weishan and Larson assertions, and said both critics are using a tragedy to try to score political points.
“We have over the last eight years spent $730 million dollars from the capital budget on maintenance and replacement and construction and other things,” Walker said. “These (charges) are just wild accusations with no basis.”
In any case, Walker said, even if part of that $113.4 million had been spent on inspections of the O’Donnell Park parking structure, those inspections most likely wouldn’t have uncovered the structural issues that led to the facade falling off.
“The things (the investigators) are identifying in terms of pieces not being installed correctly are not things that could have been found with a normal inspection,” Walker said in an interview.
He said that upon taking office in 2003, he felt it necessary to “slow down” the capital budget because in the years just before “they were building all sorts of new things and not taking care of the things they already had. All the building they were doing literally didn’t serve any purpose.”
Of the $730 million that Walker said the county has spent on capital maintenance under his watch, Larson said half was for “tax-levy-neutral work” at General Mitchell International Airport, which was planned for the decade before Walker took office.
Larson points to an audit prepared by Jerome Heer, director of audits for Milwaukee County’s Department of Audit and released last fall.
According to that audit, the parks department for Milwaukee County characterized its preventive maintenance program as “one that repairs something after it breaks rather than providing ongoing maintenance to preserve its useful life.”
“We knew this was their policy, to put stuff off and put stuff off,” Larson said. “(The report shows) this is a written-down policy that they address stuff when the stuff gets broken and not when it needs fixing.”