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Barrett wants to spend $13.6M next year to replace lead lines

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett plans to increase spending on infrastructure and lead-line replacements next year, according to the 2020 budget proposal he released on Tuesday.

In his budget address, Barrett said the city was at a “crossroads” and called on state lawmakers to allow county residents to vote in a referendum on a proposed 1% sales. If approved, the sales tax would provide money that would go not only to the city of Milwaukee but also other local municipalities and Milwaukee County itself.

Barrett is calling for spending $70.6 million next year on infrastructure, an amount that would be an increase of $4.7 million over what’s set aside for that purpose in the city’s current budget. Among other things, the plans call for the reconstruction of 26 miles of city streets, replacement of 20 miles of water mains and expenditure of $10 million to rebuild a pumping station for use with a pipeline to bring water from Lake Michigan to the city of Waukesha. The proposed budget would also spend a similar amount to replace lead service lines.

But the city could spend even more on infrastructure, and avoid a proposed reduction in the size of its police force, if it were permitted to adopt a new sales tax, Barrett said.

“Let me be clear: We are not asking the state for more money,” Barrett said. “We are asking for the ability to go to our voters and to address the pressing financial issues that we face.”

Barrett and other local leaders have long criticized state lawmakers because the portion of local tax revenue the city and other municipalities receive from the state has remained flat and not kept pace with inflation, effectively depriving the city of revenue. As a result, Barrett said, he and other local officials are having to make some tough choices. His budget, for instance, would eliminate 60 positions from the Milwaukee Police Department by not replacing retiring employees, while increasing the pay of remaining employees.

The city also plans to slightly increase the amount of money it will spend on lead-line replacements next year. At the state level, lawmakers have long talked about making these replacements a priority but have yet to set aside money for this purpose. The state’s 2019-2021 budget has no money for lead-line replacements.

All told, Barrett’s proposed budget would spend $13.6 million next year on lead-line replacements, testing and filters for “at-risk households.” The city set aside $12.4 million in 2019 for these purposes.

Milwaukee has been searching for years for a way to curtail lead contamination in its water supply. The city is thought to have about 40% of the state’s 170,000 lead laterals.

The city, in all, aims to replace 1,100 lead service lines next year, slightly more than its goal in 2019. Through mid-August, the city had replaced 518 lead service lines and is expected to reach its goal of replacing 1,000 lead service lines by the end of the year. Even so, at this pace, it will take decades to replace the city’s lead infrastructure.

Barrett said if Milwaukee-area officials could persuade state lawmakers to let them hold a referendum on the proposed sales, more money could go toward lead-line replacements. According to budget documents, a 1% increase in the local sales tax would let the city spend an additional $5.4 million on its lead-line replacements.

“Colleagues I’m asking each and every one of you to understand the gravity of our situation and to focus on the big picture,” Barrett said in his budget address. “Let’s work together to try to convince the legislature to allow our citizens to decide the level of services they want.”

Additionally, the city’s budget calls for $32.8 million for 20 miles of water-main replacements and also has $2.5 million for the construction of a water main for the city of Waukesha. That’s part of an ongoing $286 million project to build a pipeline from Lake Michigan to Waukesha to supply the city with water.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s budget would set aside $10 million for the construction of the Oklahoma Avenue pumping station, another project that’s part of the Waukesha pipeline plan. The construction of that pipeline is expected to begin in late 2020.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

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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