The new year brings a sense of cautious optimism for Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous and diverse county. Among the defining peaks and valleys of 2023 was the passage of new shared revenue and local sales tax laws under Act 12. “Without those dollars, Milwaukee County wouldn’t have been able to actually, quite frankly, do the things that we actually put into this upcoming budget,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner in an end-of-year interview.
Act 12 – signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers in June – was viewed as a gift by some even as it was sharply criticized by others. The product of months-long negotiations between city and county leaders in Milwaukee, Gov. Evers and Republican leaders in the Legislature, Act 12 meant different things for different communities. It allowed the city of Milwaukee to enact an additional 2% sales tax and the county to raise a 0.4% tax.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley featured at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
If approved by two-thirds of the local governing bodies, the increases would help Milwaukee County avert a pension crisis, preserve services critical to residents and avoid fiscal catastrophe. The bill also dedicates 20% of the state’s sales tax to local government funding, pumping an additional $274.9 million into local governments.
Under the deal, the new tax revenue can only be used on costs related to law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical services, emergency communications, public works and transportation. Additionally, in order to approve the tax reforms for Milwaukee, the city’s Fire and Police Commission – once one of the country’s oldest and most powerful citizen-led commissions – was forced to surrender its power to set policy for the Milwaukee Police Department. Schools in Milwaukee were also required to rehire in-school police officers after their ouster following community pressure. Milwaukee is also required to maintain specific levels of law enforcement, preventing any future attempts to downsize or defund the police force. Activist groups in the city and county denounced the bill as an attack on policy reforms achieved after the movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announces a shared revenue deal on June 8, 2023 | Photo by Erik Gunn
Navigating the discussions which ultimately birthed Act 12 was a delicate dance around polarized ideologies in the state. “They were extremely tough negotiations,” particularly when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was involved, Crowley told Wisconsin Examiner. It’s something the county executive became accustomed to during his time as a state representative in the Legislature. The negotiations brought together Crowley, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, and state leaders.
At the forefront of Crowley’s mind was Milwaukee County standing firm on diversity programs by the end of the negotiations. While Vos and other Republicans have are conducting a crusade within the state’s college system to root out Diversity Equity and Inclusion programs, Crowley said Milwaukee County was able to preserve its own programs.
Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2023-25 budget bill on July 5, 2023. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
“Those provisions did not affect us in the work that we do,” said Crowley, “so it still gives us the ability to continue to invest in our vision of being the healthiest county in the state of Wisconsin, and really taking steps to achieve racial equity. … During those negotiations we also understood that there was some give, and there was some take.”
“When you have a divided government like we have, having Gov. Evers at the helm was extremely important,” Crowley added. “And he was able to use his position to do certain things. But I will say when you have divided government, it gets a little messy. The process was a little messy, but we are able to still get through this.”
Gains made going into 2024
During his time as county executive, Crowley has focused on addressing Milwaukee’s legacy of discrimination and inequality. Tackling racism as a public health crisis, it’s been the ambition of Crowley and other local leaders to remedy gaps in opportunities for housing, employment, mental health and to support marginalized communities.
For the first time in over two decades, Milwaukee County is expecting a surplus which it plans to use for local investments. Among the positive ripples of the surplus will be help for homeowners. “It’s a $21 million property tax decrease for Milwaukee County residents,” said Crowley. “It’s actually the largest in Milwaukee County’s history.” The state budget surplus, he said, puts dollars back into the hands of taxpayers. Yet, the county isn’t totally out of the woods. “We also have to keep in mind that we still have a long road ahead of us,” said Crowley. “Yes, this has helped reduce our long-term debt moving forward, and has freed up our ability to make investments that we haven’t been able to make in so many years. And we still have to continue to work together.”
Clusters of tents can be found in Martin Luther King Jr. Park in 2021. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
More than $600,000 in American Rescue Plan ACT (ARPA) funding was allocated to support community mental health, with $200,000 going to the Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center, and $400,000 to support a contract with health care provider City on a Hill. Money in both the county budget and from ARPA funds went to support affordable housing, including the construction of 120 new family homes in the King Park neighborhood. The homes, located in a Northside Milwaukee neighborhood which has struggled with crime and housing problems, would be situated near the future Marcia P. Coggs Health and Human Services center.
The center is designed specifically to connect residents with resources to address social determinants of health. Construction of a new Forensic Science and Protective Medicine Facility, as well as a new highway maintenance facility were also put into motion. Crowley also allocated $16 million in the county budget to support public transit, and support for public parks including the planting of over 360 trees throughout the county.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signs a bill making $11 million in opioid settlement funds available for projects. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The 2024 budget includes over $23 million in investments dedicated to new projects for Milwaukee County’s park system. Investments have also been made to mitigate the overdose crisis, which took the lives of nearly 700 county residents in 2022. Every 16 hours, someone dies of a drug overdose in Milwaukee County. Throughout the county, free-to-use vending machines stocked with the overdose reversal medication Narcan, fentanyl testing strips, and other harm reduction supplies have been deployed.
“It’s near and dear to me,” said Crowley, “having family members who struggled from addiction, who struggled from and had their own mental health crisis. We had to make these investments. If we want to save more money, we have to strategize on how to make these investments.”
Crowley stressed that support from the state and federal governments will still be needed to address addiction and mental health needs. “But we have to put everything on the table when it comes to saving our community.”
Nasal Narcan, used to reverse an overdose, in Milwaukee County’s first harm reduction vending machine. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Augmenting those services will help the county move away from an over-reliance on the criminal justice system. There’s no better place to observe the intersection of mental health, equity, and criminal justice than in the Milwaukee County jail. Over the past two years, pressure and criticism has mounted over the conditions at the jail.
Activists and local officials have decried six deaths that occurred in the jail over a 14-month period. The Milwaukee County Sheriff and others have pointed to under-staffing and lack of funding as a driving force behind the deaths. Critics point to a lack of transparency on the part of the Sheriff’s Office, which has seen its budget increase in recent years.
While the jail has struggled, the county’s Community Reintegration Center (CRC), formerly known as the House of Corrections, has undergone a make-over. Crowley noted that the jail as a pre-trial detention facility is different from the CRC, which holds people who have been convicted of lower-level offenses. Crowley is focused on changing attitudes in order to help improve conditions. “How do we think about changing the culture? How do we think about how we use our language? We don’t have ‘inmates,’ we have residents. I’m not calling it the House of Corrections anymore.”
Protesters gather at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to call for transparency in the death of Breon Green. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
At the CRC, a new vision of who people are before, during and after their stay helped move the facility in a different direction. “Changing the culture, and changing what we helped build and what we really want our residents to be when they are coming out of our facilities, I think, helped bring in the change-makers that we want to be able to continue to hire within Milwaukee County,” said Crowley. “And we’re going to continue to do everything that we can to support the Sheriff’s Office as well. Because we need to make sure that we not only protect the people who work there, but making sure that those residents are also protected and they’re getting their needs met while they are in the sheriff’s care.”
Crowley cautions, however, “it definitely takes time.”
Looking forward in the new year
Milwaukee County is set for a big year. Ahead of the 2024 elections the city will host the Republican National Convention (RNC). “It’s going to be a very interesting year,” said Crowley. When it comes to the RNC, “all eyes are going to be on Milwaukee,” he said, from people who want to support the Republican nominee, to those who come to protest, to those just watching the show.
Reflecting on his own election in spring as well as the presidential election in November, Crowley said, “We need to make sure that we’re getting as many people out to vote as possible.”
“We always talk about this being the most important election. But I think not just this last election, but this upcoming [presidential] election are some of the most important elections because I think these are the times where we are not only telling ourselves, but we’re telling the world who we want to be and who we are as a country.”
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F01%2F08%2Fmilwaukee-county-exec-reflects-on-the-past-year-prepares-for-2024%2F by Isiah Holmes