A Tale of One Meeting

[Originally posted on Medium]

The Parks, Energy and Environment Committee meeting that the County Board held on Friday was anything but boring — both for the fiscal geeks and the fans of Milwaukee County among us.

I fall into both camps; I’m hoping you fall into at least one or the other. (And if you don’t, I’ll do my best to talk you firmly into either.)

The meeting notice and agenda looked as straightforward as can be. But as it turns out, there were two agenda items that give you a really good picture of the humps we have to climb over in order to get where we want to be: a County government that is fiscally healthy, meaningful for people and responsive to the people we serve.

So speaking of humps, let’s start with the Domes.

Mitchell Park Domes

We all love the Domes. They’re striking to look at, and the horticultural collection they showcase is amazing (and educational!). But you might remember that we’ve had a few structural problems in the past … and we’re not quite certain yet what the future will hold.

This uncertainty led to the creation of the Domes Task Force, which offered an update at Friday’s Parks Committee meeting that generated a bit of conversation.

We’ll pause the talk on the Domes for a second while I mention the other agenda item of interest here: the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM).

Streets of Old Milwaukee, a long-loved permanent exhibit inside the Milwaukee Public Museum

Though MPM is operated by a separate nonprofit, the County owns both the collections and most of the building that houses them. In addition, the County has long been MPM’s largest regular donor, chipping in about $3.5 million per year toward their operations. Just like the Domes, the Public Museum is a wonderful destination for visitors and an extraordinarily valuable educational tool for our community.

And just like the Domes, the structure of this building has some major needs.

From the MPM site:

As was described in a 2013 report by Milwaukee’s non-partisan Public Policy Forum, MPM’s building had more than $30 million in deferred capital maintenance and that number has continued to increase in the years since. The County, despite its best efforts, simply does not have funds available to maintain the building — akin to the situation at the Domes and other County facilities.

Every rainstorm leads to dozens of buckets appearing across MPM to catch leaks. Old pipes have burst in storage areas and caused major damage to the public’s collections. Some of the most valuable collections are stored in the Museum basement, which has environmental and mold issues and does not meet modern museum standards.

With both of these buildings, we’re operating under two sets of realities:

  1. These are wonderful destinations that I would love for you to go visit again and again. They offer richness to our community by engaging our residents and visitors with the world around us in totally unique ways. These facilities are meaningful to anyone who sees them or wanders inside, and I am incredibly proud that they are both part of what the County does.
  2. They. Are. Falling. Apart. Historically, the County hasn’t planned for their physical maintenance — and we don’t really have the resources to catch up on that maintenance now.

Both the Domes and the Museum — regardless of what path forward we take — will require major investments from our community in order to sustain operations, much less update and expand their possibilities for the future.

The County is critically important to the future of both of these facilities. But as you’ll see in a couple weeks when we introduce the 2019 budget, while we are making major headway into creating as strong of a future for the County as possible, we’re realistically looking at more service cuts than we are program expansions.

Every year since I’ve taken office, our budget process (which we start in about February) has started out with the County more than $20 million short of where we need to be just to sustain operations from the previous year.

We’re not the federal government — we can’t just kick the can down the road. The County Board and I have to carve out a balanced budget every year, and even after working every possible angle with our departments to try to run a lean, but stable, operation … at a certain point there’s not much left to streamline without affecting programs.

The long and the short of it is, we can’t just shift other County money to the Domes or the Museum to solve their problems and preserve their future. It’s not there.

We are going to need to find new revenue streams that either:

  • Take the pressure off the rest of the County budget, or
  • Create new funding options to take on these large-scale projects.

I could stop it right there and say something hopeful like, “I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities,” or “Perhaps someday these issues will magically solve themselves.”

My staff even checked this rainbow outside the Courthouse for a pot of gold at the end. Tragically, there wasn’t one.

I don’t have the option to dismiss this situation with wishes and hopes. I’m the County Executive for Milwaukee County, and I have been for seven years. I can say with authority that nothing about our budget situation is gonna solve itself.

The two issues outlined above? Remember, that was just from one meeting.

In addition to those dilemmas to solve, we also need to tear down our Safety building, build a new Justice Center, address more than $200 million in deferred maintenance across our Parks system, fully secure the future of our pension system to keep our promises to current and future retirees (under a system that’s only going to get more costly for another 15 years or so), invest in transit to keep up with shifting community needs, maintain a high-quality workforce to deliver County services, transform some of the exhibits in our Zoo, create a new International Terminal at the Airport … and trust me, that ain’t even the full list.

Beyond what the County does, our community has other needs, like supporting public safety, fixing our roads, expanding our convention center … We could spend a while on that list, too.

Look around you at this great community. We have a history that is plagued with divisions, going back even to when Juneautown, Kilbourntown and Walker’s Point battled each other in the form of incomplete, destroyed and crooked bridges.

But when we come together, when we finally get on the same page and commit to a vision for our collective future, amazing things can happen.

Amazing things: Example 1
Amazing things: Example 2

Not everything we want to do for our future takes the form of a building. What we want to do doesn’t just build our land, it builds up our lives.

A unified approach is the only way to move forward. And that’s why I am working every day to build a coalition between voices across our community, counties across the state and the State of Wisconsin to do one simple thing:

Let’s explore every possible shared resource — whether it’s money, manpower, statutory changes or anything else — and see what we can do to support each other.

It may seem impossible, but I firmly believe we can solve this. So let’s build each other up. And let’s do it before things start tumbling down.


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