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Milwaukee County exec debate raises questions about building backlog

As the race to lead Milwaukee County heats up, those running to replace outgoing executive Chris Abele are staring down a persistent cause of concern: a backlog of infrastructure projects that most likely can’t be broken without a new influx of revenue.

Whoever emerges victorious among the candidates for the county executive’s office will inherit a budget that’s been treading water in recent years. The county dodged deep cuts in services last fall thanks to several unforeseen windfalls. But the estimated cost of the county’s backlog of needed construction projects is expected to exceed $220 million by 2023.

On Tuesday, Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, questioned four of the candidates about how they’d confront a structural deficit that’s expected to approach $20 million next year, all the while meeting pension obligations, infrastructure needs and planning for a $300 million project to replace the county’s justice center.

Milwaukee County Board Chair Theo Lipscomb Jr.; State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee; the businesswoman Purnima Nath; and former state Senator Jim Sullivan participate. Two other candidates did not attend. State. Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, was kept away because he was at an Assembly floor session that same day, and Glendale Mayor Brian Kennedy declined to show up.

Larson said there are no easy choices.

“If it is a $15 million to $20 million deficit that we’re facing, honestly, we’re going to be be coming in there making really tough decisions. It makes it tough to campaign,” Larson said. “It’s like a marriage proposal with a promise that you’re going to start marriage counseling on day one.”

Tuesday’s talk was further clouded by a dispute that has taken two candidates off the ballot, at least temporarily. Sullivan and Kennedy are now out of the race following a complaint by Lipscomb alleging they had violated state law by using the same people as Crowley to collect signatures. Crowley and Kennedy filed a court challenge of the Wisconsin Election Commission’s ruling on Wednesday.

As for the financial quandary, it centers on the county’s inability to raise additional revenue and has been compounded by guidelines passed in 2003 restricting how much the county can borrow.

A report from the county’s comptroller this fall found the county would need to spend $120 million a year on infrastructure through 2039 to whittle down its logjam. Its practice of holding down borrowing, however, has allowed the county to spend just half of that on average. And a previous report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found the county’s infrastructure backlog could reach $400 million in the next four years.

Milwaukee-area officials have been pushing the GOP-led Legislature in recent months to pass legislation allowing the county to increase the local sales tax by 1 cent. The so-called Fair Deal plan could raise about $160 million yearly, money that would be divvied up among municipalities within Milwaukee County.

Lipscomb said the sales tax is an example of a revenue source “at scale.” Other options — such as installing parking meters along the the city’s lakefront — would quickly prove inadequate to meet the county’s long-term financial needs.

“Fundamentally we need new revenue,” Lipscomb said. “Now, that has not been an accepted in the previous county exec elections. This is actually the first time where you’re going to hear the majority of the candidates knowledge that we need more revenue.”

All of the candidates at the forum on Tuesday — except Nath — expressed support for the Fair Deal plan.

Sullivan noted that sales taxes have this benefit: they raise money not only from Milwaukee County residents but also visitors.

“The opportunity to get a sales tax done means you can support infrastructure in Milwaukee county if you live outside the county,” he said.

So far, though, no attempt to persuade the Legislature to allow an increase in the local sales tax has succeeded.

“It’s a myriad of ways that the state cheats the county,” Lipscomb said. “I just don’t think we can let the state off the hook.”

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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