Milwaukee’s Almost-Crisis Demands Your Attention 

The Wisconsin Policy Forum's years-in-the-making report makes it painfully clear: Milwaukee's infrastructure is in real trouble.

The Recombobulation Area is a brand new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

The Milwaukee County Courthouse is one of many County-run buildings in need of serious work. Photo by Dan Shafer.

Note: All charts and tables below are from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

There’s a quiet crisis looming in Milwaukee. It’s hiding below the surface. It hasn’t quite captured our attention, but it’s there.

What Milwaukee is facing is a serious infrastructure problem. And it’s one we currently do not have the capacity to properly address. 

The Wisconsin Policy Forum, the local gold standard in public policy analysis, recently completed a five-part mega-series about metro Milwaukee. The series was produced over the last three years, examining our public infrastructure, and in particular, what’s governed by Milwaukee County. 

I asked Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and co-author of the report, if what’s happening in Milwaukee constitutes an “infrastructure crisis.” This is what he said:

“We have been very careful to avoid using the word “crisis,” only because we don’t want to convey that citizens out there should be concerned about walking into public buildings or driving over City or County bridges or drinking water from the Milwaukee Water Works. So in other words, the backlog need has certainly not reached the point where there are big public safety concerns, or really any public safety concerns. And to the extent to which there were concerns that a bridge just hadn’t been taken care of properly then the bridge, ostensibly, would be closed. This isn’t a situation where we have critically important pieces of infrastructure that are literally falling apart and failing and creating a health and safety crisis. 

That said, certainly for Milwaukee County, it has reached the point of being defined as a fiscal crisis. Because the financial need is so beyond the capacity of that government to address the need, that some very difficult decisions are going to have to be made, which may involve a reduction in the quality of life amenities or asking citizens or other levels of government to pay a great deal more.”

So it’s not a full-blown infrastructure crisis. But it is a fiscal crisis. And it’s not yet an infrastructure crisis because you can still walk into places like the Milwaukee County Courthouse without it physically collapsing around you. That’s not exactly the highest bar to clear. 

This new 49-page report, “Picking Up The Pieces,” co-authored by Henken and Ashley Fisher, paints a fairly stark picture of the challenges the City and County (mostly the County) face — hundreds of millions in backlogged capital projects, hundreds of millions of dollars needed to replace lead service lines (with the state legislature now providing zero help), a desperate need for a new Safety Building, an aging fleet of buses, more than half of city streets in need of repair. And those are just the main takeaways.

After this final installment of the series was released in late June, Milwaukee went through its usual news cycle that it seems to follow after a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report. There was a round of stories, some community discussion, talk about What Needs To Be Done, and a chorus of respect for Henken and the work he and his team are doing, but the report’s revelations eventually faded into the background, and a fresh news cycle began.

That shouldn’t be the case this time around. Greater urgency is now required. Wonky or nuanced or aggressively nonpartisan as it may be, these latest findings demand that the community continues this conversation. 

Our elected officials officials need to seek real, lasting solutions to the financial bedrock holding up essential infrastructure — buildings, sewer, water, transportation, parks, culture, etc. — in a County home to nearly one million people. 

Local elections will be held on April 7, 2020 — the Mayor, County Executive, and every Common Council and County Board seat will be on the ballot — and this almost-crisis needs to be addressed by those asking for our vote.

But the coming conversation is going to be a difficult one because Milwaukee leaders are unfortunately facing a bunch of bad options.

“Our sincere hope was that as we worked on this for two-to-three years and sized up the scope of the problem, we would also find some obvious and politically viable solutions, and/or creative approaches that have been taken in other places that we could adopt here,” said Henken. “And at the end of the project, it was pretty darn clear that the range of options that we would've been able to identify going in are really the range of options (we have). … We wish we had found some real easy solutions here. But I think if there has been some easy solutions, they would’ve been pursued by now.”

Henken’s report says that of those potential solutions, “an ‘all-of-the-above’ response will be necessary,” meaning things like new taxes, new borrowing, new ways to structure government, significant cuts to both existing services and future projects, and more will need to be seriously explored. The report even entertains the idea of selling parks, though Henken says that’s not yet “realistically on the table politically.” Cutting an exciting project like Bus Rapid Transit, however, could be, he said.

The report alludes to it, and I’ve argued as much in a recent column, but the most direct path to addressing many of these financial woes is to raise the sales tax. At just 5.6 percent, Milwaukee has one of the lowest sales taxes of any major American city -- 111th highest out of the 115 largest cities in the country. A sales tax increase should headline an “all-of-the-above” response.

However, under state law, the City or County can not raise its own sales tax by itself. This probably bears repeating: Milwaukee cannot raise its own sales tax. It needs enabling legislation from the state of Wisconsin, something that is seeming less and less likely as Republicans, under Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, are taking a more and more anti-Milwaukee position.

Raising the sales tax just a half-cent would get you most of the way there to pay for these capital projects (you can also try this for yourself using Milwaukee County’s fancy new “Balancing Act” interactive budgeting tool).

The backlog of capital projects exceeds $226 million, and that’s before getting to the need to replace the Milwaukee Safety Building, which could cost more than $300 million on its own. The report says it flat out: “The most alarming overall message of our series is that Milwaukee County does not come close to having the financial capacity to address the totality of its capital needs for those assets, while the city of Milwaukee is edging closer to such an assessment.” 

Part of the problem, said Henken, is that many of these infrastructure needs aren’t the type of things that are going to grab headlines. There are no splashy renderings of new water pipes or fixed potholes for the city to get excited about. There’s no big press conference and ribbon cutting for repairing a bus. No one is throwing a parade for maintaining the positive fiscal outlook of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District. 

“It’s dozens upon dozens of lower profile projects that don’t really capture the public’s imagination,” said Henken, adding that this isn’t the type of thing that would get people excited about a potential referendum campaign. “That’s sort of the irony there.”

A referendum has seemed like the endpoint of this discussion for some time -- multiple sources told me as such months ago. Business leaders in Milwaukee spent years hosting task force meetings and forums to identify the types of cultural and capital projects that could be funded along with the Bucks arena, only to fund the arena and nothing else. 

Now, with the bill due for much of the rest -- and the Wisconsin Policy Forum providing the factual baseline upon which an honest debate can truly be had -- it’s time to see that discussion through.

Joel Brennan, secretary of the Department of Administration under Gov. Tony Evers and former president and CEO of Discovery World, told me in January that discussion surrounding any kind of funding package for large capital projects, including things like the Milwaukee County Domes and the Milwaukee Public Museum (totaling perhaps into the billions of dollars), would be addressed as separate legislation after the state budget was hammered out. Evers signed the budget on July 3. It remains to be seen what’s next.

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In a best case scenario, the state would move swiftly along with the County and City to raise the sales tax in time for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, potentially providing a huge, one-time explosion of new revenue when the eyes of the world turn to downtown Milwaukee (and more than 50,000 people visit the city) for the once-in-a-generation event next July. It’s a golden opportunity, and it’s right there in front of us, and it could go a long, long way toward solving the County’s financial woes.

The more realistic outcome, however, is that — due to the aforementioned lack of imagination-capturing ability of these projects — the business community and local leaders drag their feet to bring a proposal to Madison, and once they get there, Vos and state Republicans throw an absolute fit about letting Milwaukee do anything to help address its own issues. And even if enough representatives in our state’s extremely gerrymandered Assembly vote to let Milwaukee have some local control over its ability to collect more revenue, the inevitable GOP and talk radio-fueled vitriol directed toward The Good Land will spill into the more conservative parts of the County, making any referendum all that much more difficult to approve. And if such an effort fails, Milwaukee is left back where it started, with the same problems and fewer potential solutions. 

So as it stands in Milwaukee, there are a bunch of less-than-desirable options to pay for a bunch of unglamorous projects, structural necessities and thankless tasks. The Bucks arena debate, endlessly full of possibilities, this is not. 

The ideal outcome for solving the issue — and maximizing the convention — would be to raise the sales tax (and do it quickly), even if efforts would very likely be stonewalled by Robin Vos and the Republican state legislature. But that solution is still worth pursuing, even if you can’t get it done by July 2020. At a certain point, you have to have the fight and make your case. 

The time between now and April is crucial. Because the Spring Election lands on the same day as the Wisconsin presidential primary, turnout will be much higher than it would for most local elections. If our local leaders can’t steer us away from a full-blown infrastructure crisis within these next nine months, it might be time to put someone else in charge. This almost-crisis needs to be part of the coming campaign.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum has done the research. It’s time for our elected leaders to do the work. For Milwaukee to be home to a bonafide infrastructure crisis right as it’s on the verge of a dynamic new era would be completely unacceptable. 

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