As our national politics continue to devolve and our federal government becomes more dysfunctional, the functions of our local county government become even more critical. Milwaukee County residents count on the services their government provides on a daily basis, and the social services and functions of county government contribute to an improved quality of living.

Milwaukee County government is responsible for many important services and functions, including many you may not know about. Milwaukee County is responsible for:

  • More than 150 parks, miles of scenic trails, 15 golf courses, beer gardens, dog parks, beaches, community centers, botanical gardens, and nature trails.
  • Public transit, which provides an average of 100,000 rides every day and generates at least $342 million a year in economic benefits for our community.
  • 5 senior centers that serve meals and offer social, education, fitness, and recreational opportunities for seniors.
  • Infrastructure and road repairs for county highways.
  • Public safety, including the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney, Courts, and Medical Examiner
  • Workforce development programs to ensure workers have the skills they need to find employment.
  • Operating the Milwaukee County Zoo and Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.
  • Promote economic growth and job creation for Milwaukee County residents and businesses.
  • The wide range of life-sustaining and life-saving services to children and adults provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, including mental health care, disability services, permanent housing for homeless individuals, and trauma care.
  • Operating Wisconsin’s child support program for Milwaukee County, locating absent parents, and improving the quality of life for children and families.
  • Providing veterans’ services and assisting veterans and their families with benefit needs.
  • Rooting out and eliminating racism in our community.
  • Many other social services and programs.

Whether you utilize any of these services and programs – or know a family member or friend who does – they all contribute to a higher quality of all Milwaukee County residents.

But these services and the high quality of life that Milwaukee County residents deserve is at risk because of a looming financial crisis.

The Problem

Very simply, the cost of providing these existing services is increasing faster than the revenue being generated to pay for them, and we have no ability to generate enough revenue to pay for them. Just as your household expenses increase, so do the expenses for county government. However, the county is unable to generate sufficient revenue because of state law. The amount of money that Milwaukee County can generate through its main sources of revenue – property taxes, sales taxes, and state aid – is set by state lawmakers, and the county is unable to increase any of these taxes without approval from the state legislature.

You’re not wrong to be reading this and thinking, “If the county has a revenue crisis, why is my tax bill going up every year? How come I am paying more in taxes and getting fewer services in return?”

The answer to those questions is simple: more and more of your tax dollars are going to state government, while the amount of money being returned to Milwaukee County government to pay for services is declining.

Here are the facts: in 2009, Milwaukee County taxpayers sent $1.85 billion to state government. In 2017 (the last year the data is available) we sent $2.24 billion to the state. That’s an annual increase of $390 million in new tax revenue for the state of Wisconsin.

At the same time, Milwaukee County is getting less and less back from the state. In 2009, Milwaukee County received $154 million from various state aids, but in 2017, received only $130 million. That’s an annual decrease of $24 million in state aid for Milwaukee County. This does not even account for inflation. If state aid for Milwaukee County was the same as 2009 but indexed to inflation, we would receive $181 million in the form of state aid – a gap of $51 million from 2009.

As you can see by the tax revenue numbers, Milwaukee County generates a huge amount of tax revenue for the state of Wisconsin. And those numbers are just from county residents. According to the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce, an additional $12.9 billion of personal income was earned in 2017 in Milwaukee County by non-county residents, making Milwaukee County the only M7 (Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha, Walworth, Racine, and Kenosha) county with a net outflow of personal income.

Milwaukee County is clearly the economic engine of the state of Wisconsin – but our ability to continue to deliver the quality of services that our residents deserve and make new investments in our communities is put at risk by the financial situation outlined above. It does not take a mathematician to see that the situation is unsustainable.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum has outlined extreme consequences for residents if this problem is not fixed. Residents will continue to see fewer and fewer services. County Parks will be forced to make more cuts, close pools, and deferred maintenance will continue to pile up. MCTS will be forced to cut bus routes and raise fares, the sheriff’s department will have fewer resources to combat reckless driving, roads will continue to deteriorate, senior programs will be cut, and the health services provided by the county could be put at risk. We need state lawmakers to act so we can not only prevent these cuts, but make new investments in our services and our communities.

Read more: Will Wisconsin Let Milwaukee Save Itself? – Milwaukee Magazine

The Solution

Thankfully, we know the problem and state lawmakers can easily fix this problem – if they choose to do so. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, and the funding formulas and state laws governing counties were enacted long before any current elected official took office. The issue of how local governments are funded in Wisconsin is not unique to Milwaukee County either. 

We’re asking the state lawmakers to give county residents the ability to go to referendum to increase Milwaukee County’s sales tax by 1%. Our plan will give voters the ability to increase the sales tax, with 25% of the new revenue going toward property tax relief, and the remaining portion being divided between county government and local municipalities.

A 1% local option sales tax will give us the flexibility to invest in our future, as we continue on the path of reforming spending in Milwaukee County. It gives us the ability to build on a foundation we set when we put our finances back on sound footing. Not only will taxpayers see property tax relief, but local governments will have the ability to fund services, prevent budget cuts, and make new investments in areas like County Parks, road repairs, infrastructure projects, public transit, and other vital services.

If we can count on your support in this important effort, please add your name below and let us know that you support a fair deal for Milwaukee County residents.