Dan Shafer is the founder of The Recombobulation Area, an award-winning, reader-supported weekly column and online publication. Click HERE to subscribe.
A funny thing happened this fall in Milwaukee.
No, I’m not talking about the time Jason Momoa was signing vodka bottles at the New Berlin Costco, or when Flavor Flav sang the national anthem at a Bucks game, or that whole thing with that Brady Street bar giving out free drinks when Aaron Rodgers lost or whatever. I’m talking about budgets.
The funny thing, actually, is what didn’t happen during this fall’s budget cycle in Milwaukee. There were no deep cuts. There wasn’t a whole outrage cycle relating to the levels of funding for public safety. Budget directors weren’t saying in interviews with local media that there were going to be “cuts everywhere.” There wasn’t an excruciating debate about how the city and county’s dire financial situation could result in Milwaukee sliding into Lake Michigan, never to be seen again. All things considered, it was a pretty quiet, smooth process.
The surface was calm, however, because upstream, some important (and long overdue) decisions were finally made by the state government. The shared revenue reform and local control sales tax bill—Act 12—that was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor and subsequently approved by the Common Council and County Board positioned our entities of local government here in Milwaukee for a brighter future. The existential threat was dealt with.
That made this budget season unlike any the City and County had experienced in a long, long time. For so long—too long—these debates were marked by cuts to the services so many residents rely upon, and about looming fiscal cliffs that jeopardized the very future of Milwaukee. But no more. These budgets increase services.
As Urban Milwaukee reported, Mayor Cavalier Johnson’s budget “included no notable cuts for the first time in more than a decade.” As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, County Executive David Crowley’s budget “turns the page from cuts into investments”—and even lowers property taxes. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a sea change this is for Milwaukee.
To wit, every fall, for the past 15 or so years, the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a statewide, nonpartisan, independent policy research organization, has produced a “Budget Brief” analyzing the proposed budget from the mayor or county executive. It has always been pretty bleak. The city’s share of state shared revenue was flat as costs and expenses rose, essentially amounting in significant budget cuts. County services were slashed as deferred maintenance backlogs grew. It was always about how to plug this hole, how to soften this blow, how to manage within the extremely rigid confines the state imposed on the city.
But this year? Not so much.
“I and the Forum are not really much into hyperbole,” said Rob Henken, the organization’s president, in an interview with us. “But, you know, ‘mindblowing’ is a word that comes to mind here. Just such a complete about face.”
He continued: “I did not think I would live to see the day when we would produce a City of Milwaukee budget brief and a Milwaukee County budget brief that was not essentially just describing the nature and the breadth and the depth of these far reaching financial problems, and the devastating service cuts that were on the horizon. And instead this year, in our reports on both the City and the County, the whole discussion is about how strategically, these two governments are investing their new resources in ways that both will make up for years of underinvestment.”
It is indeed mindblowing what’s happening here. We need to pause to acknowledge this. For the first time in a generation, Milwaukee is not making cuts, and is beginning to turn the dial in the other direction and invest in its future. This is remarkable and leaders should be commended for their work.
Henken is the king of nonpartisan policy analysis in Wisconsin, something he reminded me of several times during our conversation (which you can listen to in full over at The Recombobulation Area, subscribe!), so to hear him use such effusive praise was rather startling.
“I once upon a time worked for Milwaukee County as a budget analyst,” said Henken. “So I’ve been analyzing Milwaukee County budgets since 1998. And this is the first year since 1998 that my analysis of the County budget has ever been dominated by good news.”
Digging into the briefs themselves, they are downright glowing—well, to the extent that a piece of policy analysis can be glowing. I’ve been reading and absorbing and trying to learn from these briefs and other studies about local financing for years, and I’ve never come across anything remotely this positive about Milwaukee’s future.
Previous studies on the City of Milwaukee’s finances used titles like “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” “Making Ends Meet,” and “Nearing the Brink,” and now, Henken says the City and County budgets are, “without question,” in better standing in 2023 than at any time he’s been analyzing them.
I talked with Henken more than four years ago, for the second column I wrote after launching The Recombobulation Area—“Milwaukee’s Almost-Crisis Demands Your Attention”—on the looming challenges for the County to fund infrastructure projects following the release of the Forum’s report titled “Picking Up The Pieces.”
Then, he said of Milwaukee County’s infrastructure that “we have been very careful to avoid using the word ‘crisis,’ only because we don’t want to convey that citizens out there should be concerned about walking into public buildings or driving over City or County bridges or drinking water from the Milwaukee Water Works…That said, certainly for Milwaukee County, it has reached the point of being defined as a fiscal crisis.”
This is how it was, for years and years and years. A cut for this, a slash for that. Finding ways to get creative about generating new revenue in largely unpopular ways. Doing what you can to keep the lights on. Taking lemons and using what few tools are allowed to you to make lemonade, and then getting roundly criticized for the lemonade produced.
But now, we are entering a new chapter in Milwaukeee’s story. Challenges still lie ahead, to be sure. This positive budget outlook is far from permanent. But when someone like Rob Henken calls what’s happening “mindblowing” and says he did not think he would “live to see the day” when Milwaukee’s budgets look like this, we need to stop and take notice. This is a momentous achievement, and a turning point in the history of this city and county.
There’s every reason to be optimistic about Milwaukee right now. I know we’ve all been conditioned to believe otherwise, that we’re all waiting for the next shoe to drop, for another crisis to arise. But for the first time in a long time, things are genuinely looking up. This is something we should be proud of. This is something we can build upon. Since I moved to Milwaukee in 2009, I’ve never been more excited and encouraged about this city’s future than I am right now.