In county government, board debate is always brewing
I am often asked if I ever run out of ideas for writing columns. While some of my more critical readers have suggested that this happened sometime in 2005, in reality, I always have been able to come up with a topic that is related to county government.
Fortunately, whenever writer’s block threatens to set in, it is often Milwaukee County government that saves the day by providing some interesting subject. Generous backdrop pensions and feuds between various officials have provided the basis for a number of my past columns. I was struggling for a topic and, as if on cue, Wisconsin legislators and officials from the state’s most populous county came through once again. Earlier this month, newly elected state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo announced his intention to introduce legislation to cut the size and pay of the Milwaukee County Board.
The story is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Sanfelippo is a former Milwaukee County supervisor. His past attempts at reforming that board apparently were rebuffed by his peers. With a promotion to the legislature, he now seeks to impose change through state law. Secondly, the legislation raises the issue of how large local government boards should be and how their members should be compensated. Finally, closer to home, Walworth County has had its own experience with downsizing. Twice, in recent history, the size of our county board was reduced.
I haven’t seen the proposed Milwaukee County legislation yet. What has been reported by the media is that, if passed, a referendum question will be placed on the ballot in that county asking voters whether they would approve of a 15-member county board with the salaries of members capped at $15,000 per year. Supervisors there currently earn $50,679. An additional component of the legislation would limit that county board’s own budget for staff and office resources at four-tenths of 1 percent of the county’s property tax levy. Using current figures, that would mean an 85 percent cut in the board’s own budget.
Arguments against placing an issue like board size on a referendum are that the public lacks enough information to make an intelligent decision, and they always will vote for a smaller board. I agree with the first part of that statement, but disagree with the second. In counties where the question has been put to voters, results have been mixed. Current law allows voters to force the issue of board size if they collect enough signatures on petitions. Such a measure passed in our county in 2007 with 54 percent of the electorate favoring our current 11-member board. While downsizing was approved in Walworth County and a few others, measures failed to pass in a number of other counties. I do agree that, in general, the public lacks enough information to set board size. Were voters to attend every board and committee meeting, they might have a completely different impression of how many supervisors should serve and what resources should be at their disposal.
In the case of Milwaukee County, which has an elected county executive, the question of resources becomes a balance of power issue, as well. If the board has fewer staff and funds to perform their own due diligence, the county executive has an advantage. On the other hand, the executive is elected by all county voters, and an organization that has 19 independent executives is unlikely to succeed.
I can’t blame the public for its lack of knowledge regarding the details of county board operations. If a board chooses to downsize on its own, like our county did in 2001 when our 35-member board was reduced by 10, it can be done in a planned manner. If a board won’t talk about downsizing, the public can’t be expected to have much insight into the issue and in that case, are often left to take a shot in the dark. I have no idea whether the full-time supervisors in Milwaukee County are putting in full days at the office. With 1 million residents and all of the programs that are run, plus an airport and 140 parks, or so, I would guess that there would be enough to do. As in any organization, it is likely that some supervisors there work harder than others.
The issue of compensation is one that our own board will have to deal with before this November. State law requires that compensation be fixed before the start of the next term. Unlike Milwaukee County, it has been my experience that most elected officials are reluctant to raise their pay. Board members here earn $500 per month with no paid benefits, a figure that has not increased since 2006.
None of Wisconsin’s 2,000 units of local government has ever gone out of business due to a lack of candidates. Under that theory, I suppose, it would be possible to reduce pay to zero and still have people willing to serve. Whether those would be the best people to govern is a different question. Local government benefits when people with a broad range of backgrounds serve. Retired folks and those with means make great board members; people who still need to work bring critical perspectives, as well. Service on a county board is time consuming. Reasonable compensation for those who spend long evenings in meetings is not only fair but important to ensure that supervisors reflect the constituents they represent.