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Milwaukee County Board braces for referendum

A referendum asking voters if the salaries of Milwaukee County supervisors should be sliced nearly in half has left supervisors predicting dire consequences if the answer is “yes.”

That change in pay, several supervisors said, would force them to work the equivalent of part-time jobs, and that, in turn, would create an imbalance of power between the county’s legislative and executive branches.

The referendum is a provision of Act 14 (PDF), a law signed by Gov. Scott Walker in June. Milwaukee County residents will vote on whether to cut supervisors’ pay nearly in half and to strip them of pension and other benefits not required by law. Most of Act 14’s provisions, such as restrictions on the board’s budget and oversight, are not part of the referendum.

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, a former Milwaukee County supervisor, drafted the legislation.

Supervisor Peggy Romo West said a “yes” vote would create a discrepancy between the hours the county executive and the supervisors spend on the job. A part-time County Board, she said, cannot provide checks and balances against a full-time county executive.

“There’s really nobody, if you will, guarding the henhouse,” Romo West said.

County Executive Chris Abele objected to that concern. He said the board worked part-time decades ago and operated efficiently. The board still would have access to its researchers, and it still would have more support staff members than any other county board in the state, Abele said.

But Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said Romo West’s concerns are legitimate. There are many examples of a full-time executive branch and a part-time legislative branch, such as the Wisconsin Legislature, he said.

Check out Beth Kevit’s related blog: “A short answer to a long question

In the 1960s and 1970s, state senators and representatives had to rely on the governor’s office for information about proposed legislation. That arrangement did not promote independent decision-making, McCabe said, so the Legislature created its own fiscal and research bureaus.

The County Board used to have its own legislative and fiscal analysts. Technically it still does, but Act 14 moved those employees from under the chairperson’s oversight and to the comptroller’s office. Those researchers also are now available for Abele.

“If those analysts aren’t truly independent but are actually reporting to a different master,” McCabe said, “that could create a problem.”

Sanfelippo said those concerns are misguided. Anyone who believes the referendum is designed to snatch away the board’s power and deliver it to the executive does not understand how county government is supposed to work, he said.

The supervisors and the county executive are on the same team, Sanfelippo said, but they play different positions. The supervisors handle policy and the county executive implements those decisions.

Lately, Sanfelippo said, the teammates have not played well together.

“That’s what we were trying to create back in Milwaukee County,” he said, “that you don’t have that constant tension.”

At least one supervisor, Deanna Alexander, agreed with Sanfelippo.

Alexander testified in favor of the intent of Act 14 during the Legislature’s deliberations, offering a compromise between concurrent state and county efforts.
She said she will vote “yes” in the referendum Tuesday. When supervisors cannot find enough work to justify a full-time commitment, she said, they tend to create solutions and then look for problems.

“Sometimes, it turns into government run amok,” Alexander said, “and we’ve seen that happen on the County Board.”

For example, she said, the board has spent a lot of time debating its stance on such federal policies as immigration reform even though the board has no say or effect on the matter.

A “yes” vote on the referendum, Alexander said, would offer some control of the board’s actions.

“There will still be people who do less than the public thinks they should,” Alexander said, “and there will still be some of us that work our butts off.”

But, she said, it has been difficult to adjust to cuts already made to the board’s support staff. Supervisors used to have their own full-time assistants, and Alexander now shares one assistant with two other supervisors.

Supervisor Pat Jursik, who shares an assistant with another supervisor, said that arrangement has forced her to restrict research into county resolutions.

Even if county voters reject the referendum, Jursik said, the board’s budget has been slashed. Under Act 14, the board’s operating budget, which covers salaries for supervisors and support staff members, will be limited to 0.4 percent of the property tax levy. In 2013, before Act 14 was passed, that change was estimated to decrease the budget, which was about $6.5 million, to about $1.2 million.

If the referendum fails, the board in 2016 would have to decide whether to proceed without assistants and have supervisors remain full-time, Jursik said, or scale back supervisors’ compensation and retain some support staff members.

“I do think that there are two sides on this,” Jursik said. “It’s very political. I think somewhere in the middle is the truth.”

Residents to answer salary question

Milwaukee County residents can vote Tuesday on the following referendum question:

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14, which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee, to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?”

A “yes” vote would slash roughly in half the pay of most members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Some members, such as the board chairperson and finance committee’s chairperson, would be paid more to compensate for their increased responsibilities. No supervisors would receive pension or other benefits from the county, except when required by law.

A “no” vote would preserve the current pay rate and benefit eligibility for each member of the 18-person County Board.

Some restrictions will be placed on the board regardless of the outcome of the referendum. A law passed in 2013 requires the supervisors’ terms be reduced from four years to two starting in 2016. The board’s operating budget, which covers salaries for supervisors and staff members, is limited to 0.4 percent of the annual property tax levy. In 2013, before the law took effect, that decrease was estimated as a drop from $6.5 million to about $1.2 million.

— Beth Kevit



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