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Milwaukee County budget passes as some residents, board members express discontent

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Milwaukee County budget passes as some residents, board members express discontent

Nov 16, 2022 | 7:13 am ET
By Isiah Holmes
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Milwaukee County budget passes as some residents, board members express discontent
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The Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Milwaukee County adopted its 2023 budget, which passed the board of supervisors by a 15-3 vote last Thursday. During public listening sessions in early November, residents spoke out against budget cuts across several departments with some services in danger of being entirely eliminated. While some of those programs were saved by subsequent budget amendments, other harm reduction and human needs programs didn’t escape the chopping block.

“Residents have been clear about their budget priorities,” said Sup. Ryan Clancy in a statement. “As they have in all prior years, and even faced with a multi-million-dollar deficit, residents again said via the Balancing Act website and in many other formats that they wanted to see more dollars go into parks, housing, mental health, and aging services. They also want fewer dollars spent on prisons, jails, and county administration.”

But that’s not what happened. The new county budget includes a 3% increase for the Milwaukee County Sheriff Office’s. Meanwhile, other departments including Behavior Health, Transit, Pretrial Services, and others were hit with budget cuts. The county’s taxi service, a vital resource of disabled residents, was to be eliminated entirely. Funding was ultimately restored to the taxi service, and $1.3 million was invested in parks. Transit was also directed to work on reviving festival bus service, and the county’s tax levy was reduced by $125,539.

Other amendments that passed require translation services, including multi-lingual captioning, meeting notices, and agendas, for county board meetings.

A paratransit stakeholder task force was created, along with a transit safety task force, an incarcerated youth task force, and funding for a study was allocated to resume visits at the jail.

There are many unresolved issues. “We have heard time and time again that residents prioritize services such as transportation and parks over policing and jails,” said Sup. Juan Miguel Martinez in a statement. “This budget does not reflect those priorities and increases funding of an unaccountable Sheriff’s Office while cutting transit routes and youth services.”

The sheriff’s growing footprint as other services dwindle was a sore point for residents even before the Defund the Police movement of 2020. Clancy pointed to the sheriff’s drone program, which it launched without board action and while the county was running a massive deficit. According to records obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner, many of the drone team’s flights involved monitoring court appearances by people involved in the protests of 2020 and ongoing marches.

Conditions in the Milwaukee County Jail are also a continuing source of scandal.  The death of Brieon Green, a 21-year-old who died in custody after being arrested by Milwaukee County deputies, is still under investigation by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department. Green’s  autopsy report is under a non-disclosure. Green’s family has continued to push for transparency and the release of video related to his arrest and death.

Martinez and Clancy authored a package of 30 amendments which sought to bring the Sheriff’s budget in line with their constituents’ wishes. The amendments included providing free transit, opening pools and park bathrooms, the elimination of library fines and supporting the needs of incarcerated adults and minors. The county board did support an amendment to divert $1.9 million away from the Sheriff’s Office’s training academy parking lot replacement project to fund various capital projects throughout Milwaukee County.

“Our failure as a board to adequately invest in our community and employees may well have additional consequences,”  Clancy said. “The rejection of an amendment which would have provided MCTS funds for increases in employee salaries make an open-ended transit strike more likely in the future.” The 2023 budget next goes to the desk of Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley.