Wonky-talk

[Originally posted on Medium]

An interesting thing happened the other day, and by “interesting” I mean maybe only for policy wonks like me.

Let me back up this discussion a sec. Anyone in leadership in Milwaukee County government right now has one major topic on their mind: the 2019 budget.

Yeah, I know, I’m probably losing half of you right there.

But for those of you still reading, if you don’t know it already, what the County does — and how we spend your tax dollars — matters a whole awful lot in the day-to-day life of anyone who lives, works or otherwise hangs out in the 414.

A small slice of the 414

Buses? County. Zoo? County. Airport? County. Housing First initiative to battle homelessness? County. Elections? County. Need a marriage license? County. Divorce? County.

Senior centers? We’ve got five of them. Parks? We’ve got more than 150. Calling 211? They’ll probably connect you to our services or our partners. Calling 911? You might get connected with our dispatch.

The list goes on and on (and on), but the tl;dr is that, in the more than $1 billion that the County will take in and spend next year, there’s definitely something that affects you.

The (policy-wonkishly) interesting thing that happened the other day is this: The Wisconsin Policy Forum announced that total property values for Dane County have, for the first time, exceeded the total property values for Milwaukee County.

One of the charts from the Wisconsin Policy Forum report

Yup, Madison’s got us beat. There are a lot of reasons, and the Wisconsin Policy Forum lays them out well. Some of it has to do with our aging infrastructure, some with the big hit our property values took during the recession and some from population shifts.

But here’s where it gets more interesting, even for the non-wonks here: The GDP (gross domestic product) for Milwaukee County and our region still far exceeds that of Dane County. And “far exceeds” isn’t just a politician’s phrase. It’s double.

On a county level, property values matter hugely because counties directly receive most of the money from property taxes. GDP matters a lot more to the state because they receive greater tax benefits from a strong GDP — like income tax.

So Dane County is benefiting from their strong property values, but Milwaukee County, which is strong in other areas like GDP and employment, isn’t seeing the same kind of revenue bump.

At the same time, we’re serving more people, and our residents overall have a greater need for many of our services.

It’s just how the state funding model works, but I don’t believe anyone ever intended that Milwaukee County would be punished for a national recession that crippled property values, or that we wouldn’t see as much direct benefit from our strong GDP.

This is a great example why we’re looking to work with the State of Wisconsin to make some changes to the way counties are funded by the state.

It’s important to note that this isn’t just Milwaukee County; lots of counties in our state are struggling to meet state mandates and provide important services within the current funding model. As the property-value example shows, having some flexibility for county funding could become an important part of the discussion.

While we’re very much focused on developing the 2019 budget, we’re also keeping an eye on making our services — from the airport to the zoo — sustainable for generations. This conversation we’re going to have on state-county financing is a big part of it.

And if you’ve gotten this far in reading, well done. But there’s lots more to come.

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