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Is Milwaukee’s County Board too large/costly?

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MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says his goals for county government are efficiency and effectiveness, but he says the structure of the County Board may be standing in the way. One day after the County Board voted to raise taxes, there are new calls for a way to reduce the cost of the Board itself.

Abele had high hopes for his 2013 budget. However, the budget approved Wednesday, November 14th will raise the county tax levy by around $3 million.

"We went into (Wednesday, November 14th) and the day could have ended in two very different ways -- obviously I was hoping it would end with a $2.4 million tax cut, which would have been the biggest in Milwaukee County in two decades," Abele said.

Instead, county supervisors voted to override Abele's vetoes, and increase taxes.

"All those people are right to ask, as a taxpayer, what did I get for that?  What am I buying for that $6.3 (million)? What you're buying is more expensive benefits for the employees of Milwaukee County," Abele said.

County Supervisor Patricia Jursik says she is proud of the budget passed by the County Board on Wednesday.

"We really saved public safety. That was the Board's main increase in the budget. I don't agree with (Abele's) emphasis on this issue," Jursik said.

Abele said he blames the County Board for wasting money and some long-time observers of county government are raising questions about the Board itself.

Bruce Murphy is the journalist who broke the pension scandal story back in 2002. He's now the editor for UrbanMilwaukee.com and arguing for a smaller Board.

"I think we're overstaffed and paying too much. There's a couple of possibilities -- one is to significantly reduce the size of the County Board to say five or six members who are full-time. The other is to say these are part-time positions. This is the only full-time board in the state. I think it's worth questioning why we have that," Murphy said.

Milwaukee County's Board is twice the size of Dane County's, and five times the size of Racine County's. When it comes to County Board spending, Milwaukee County spends seven times more than Dane County and 16 times more than Racine County.

"I think if people every year saw Milwaukee County producing balanced budgets and services weren't getting cut and taxes were't going up, we could have 500 supervisors and an emperor, but when you consistently get a poor outcome, people are right to look and say, 'okay, what's the decision-making process?'" Abele said.

Jursik represents nearly 55,000 residents and said her position on the Board is a full-time job with responsibilities that include overseeing parks, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Facility, the Milwaukee County Transit System and county jails.

"I think I do a good job representing my constituents. When I hear complaints (regarding the size of Milwaukee County's Board) -- people are comparing apples and oranges.  They say Los Angeles for example only has six supervisors, that may be true, but each of those six supervisors has a staff of 25," Jursik said.

Abele says part of the problems is the County Board, which is supposed to put forth policy, is creeping into his area of management of the county's departments.

"If you go to the barber, you're in the right place if you want a haircut.  You're in the wrong place if you want a bypass operation. You go to a cardiologist.  It's not a strange or unique concept, but it's one that needs clarifying here," Abele said.

"We can all find out where the line is between management and policy -- I would argue (Abele) sometimes makes policy when it's the Board's perogative to set policy," Jursik said.

"It is so blurred, there's almost no line.  There's so much duplication and that's why you get all of this bickering and that's why you get a government that seems so dysfunctional compared to other governments," Murphy said.

The Milwaukee County Board overrode nearly all 25 vetoes Abele issued on the Board's budget proposal -- most notably a nearly $3.7 million investment in count employee flex spending accounts, and Abele's plan to turn policing of county parks over to municipalities, vs. the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office.

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