Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My First State of the County Address

I recently moved back to Milwaukee County. As a citizen of the county—or “customer,” as County Executive Scott Walker likes to refer to me and other county residents (see here for more of my thoughts on that)—I thought it would be useful to take a close look at the State of the County address Walker gave yesterday. It was the first State of the County address I’ve ever read. What I read left me disappointed, yet completely unsurprised.

Walker began the address not as a county executive, but as a candidate for governor. Mark Green did his school voucher grandstanding with Leah Vukmir a few weeks back, so I suppose Walker felt he had to toss in some grandstanding of his own on the issue. After all, the address took place at St. Marcus Lutheran School, which is part of the voucher program. Despite the fact that the county has absolutely nothing to do with MPS or the voucher program, Walker felt it appropriate to peddle this line: “If the caps are not lifted, this school will be forced to deny a seat to as many as 75 current students. That is wrong, and for the good of all of the people in Milwaukee County we need to lift the cap!”

Interestingly, not one candidate for governor—Democrat or Republican—is proposing leaving the cap at its current level. So what point was Walker really trying to make with this statement or the location of his address, for that matter? If you can think of something besides grandstanding (and thereby campaigning on county time), I’d love to hear it.

Then we get to the meat of the address. While Bush has no problem uttering the defiant line “The state of our union is strong” without a hint of hesitancy, Walker was a little more candid in his statement. According to Walker, “The State of our County in many areas is good.” Yikes. I suppose in all fairness I should give him some credit for honesty. But that frankness and ownership of the situation doesn’t last for long, as Walker is quick to point out that many of the current problems are a result of “the challenges we inherited four years ago.”

The overriding theme of the address was the fiscal crisis facing the county. But Walker couldn’t seem to make up his mind on the impact of raising property taxes. On the one hand, he said raising them would do hardly a thing to help the budget problems due to state-imposed levy caps. According to Walker’s calculations, “current state law would only allow the county to raise the levy by $6 million in 2007 and less than $4 million in 2008.” Yet, just a short four paragraphs later in the address, Walker makes this statement: “Trying to raise taxes to solve [the budget] problem will only force more people and jobs out of the county.”

So, if I understand this correctly, we’re to believe that tax increases would hardly be big enough to even make a dent in the budget crisis, yet they’d be big enough to force people to up and move out of the county and for jobs to be eliminated from the county?

What, then, should we do to solve the budget crisis? Walker lays out twenty bullet points he refers to as “dramatic steps for 2006.” Nearly one-half of these points involve cuts. What are we going to cut this year? And the winner is—employee benefits and the parks budget! I mean, that wouldn’t cause people to up and move out of the county, would it? That’s a very family and community-friendly proposal. After all, according to Walker, “Pension and benefit costs are attacking our budget like a fast-growing virus. Fighting the virus will take dramatic action.” Interesting. I thought a fast-growing virus was something you got without affordable health care.

Is anything going to be expanded? Sure. Here it is: “we will broaden the scope of our annual Executive’s Ride on Harleys to include the promotion of attractions and business in the entire Milwaukee 7 region.” With so many freebies to dole out, there just wasn’t enough time last year.

So there I had it—the first State of the County address I ever read. While it did disappoint, it was still everything I expected it would be.

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Confession: I feel a bit dirty posting this. Although I think my points have merit, the sarcastic tone makes me feel like Sykes probably would if he was capable of a human emotion besides anger. That said, I promise to get more into the policy-side of the proposals the address makes in the not-too-distant future.

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