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Milwaukee County’s 2019 budget to tread water with scarce revenue sources

Milwaukee County's 2019 budget includes plans for the Milwaukee Public Museum, which could cost $100 million for a new building. (Staff photo by Joe Yovino)

Milwaukee County’s proposed 2019 budget contemplates the need to find a new home for the Milwaukee Public Museum. Current estimates hold that a replacement structure could cost $100 million. (Staff photo by Joe Yovino)

Milwaukee County would trim its spending on services by $14 million in its 2019 budget, under a proposal County Executive Chris Abele is calling a “temporary fix.”

Citing sagging support from state officials, Abele’s nearly $1.2 billion budget proposal for 2019 asks many departments to absorb a 1.1 percent reduction in their support from taxpayers and a year’s worth of inflationary increases even as infrastructure costs continue to pile up.

Absent from the county’s budget is any proposal to increase the county’s wheel tax or impose parking fees at county parks—two ways the county could bring in more money. Abele said the budget is hampered by pension obligations, state-mandated services and other costs, which are preventing the county from making repairs needed at parks and other properties.

“We’re at a point where if we continue without a change, we’re going to make cuts that people are going to notice and they are going to notice in a pretty damaging way,” Abele said during a county-board committee meeting on Monday.

Rather than parking fees or a higher wheel tax, the budget would eliminate a $23.5 million shortfall by relying on “one-time” revenue sources and revised expense estimates. Some substantial help is also expected from a ruling handed down in June by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing municipalities to collect online sales tax. That decision is projected to provide Milwaukee County with a windfall, generating an additional $1.7 million worth of sales-tax revenue this year.

The budget also proposes opening some county parks to camping, a decision that promises to generate about $50,000 worth of new revenue next year, and raising fees at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Abele’s draws budget follows on the heels of a recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report identifying a “seemingly insurmountable” pileup of needed repairs at many of the county’s cultural and recreational properties.

Milwaukee County plans to set aside $15.6 million for parks and cultural projects in its 2019 budget — the bulk of which will go toward a $13.6 million underwater hippopotamus exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Besides that project, the county plans to undertake five other capital projects at parks and museums, according to the 2019 budget proposal, and spend $2.2 million on those projects.

In order to work through its backlog of needed repairs, Milwaukee County would have to increase its spending on cultural institutions once over and that on parks tenfold in 2019 alone. Current plans call for an overhaul of the Milwaukee Domes, which needs between $45 million and $95 million, and a new downtown building for the Milwaukee Public Museum, which could cost $100 million. County officials are also grappling with how to pay for a new justice center, which could cost $250 million.

County officials say one culprit for Milwaukee County’s grim outlook is an imbalance between how much revenue the county sends the state and how much it receives in return.

The amount of money the state returns to the county has not increased even though what Milwaukee County sent the state when up by $400 million from 2009 to 2015, county officials say.  In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, the state returned 55 percent of that revenue that was raised by all municipalities statewide, but just 46.8 percent of that raised in southeastern Wisconsin.

On Monday, the Milwaukee County Board voted unanimously to form a working group that would meet with the state Legislature to present plans for revising the state’s revenue-sharing system and place the county on a stabler financial footing in 2020. Abele said he’d sign the measure if it’s approved during a coming hearing on the budget, scheduled for Oct. 29.

“If we don’t address this, this issue is going to become not just an expensive one but a dangerous one,” Abele said.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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