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'City is at a crossroads': Mayor Tom Barrett faces difficult budget decisions

Posted at 12:14 PM, Sep 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-24 19:08:44-04

MILWAUKEE — Mayor Tom Barrett presented his 2020 executive budget before the Common Council on Tuesday.

Barrett confirmed the city is at a crossroads, and by 2023 the budget — as is — won’t be able to sustain the projected rise in the city’s employer pension contribution.

"Pension changes are required going forward," Barrett said. "We need to move to a new benefit structure, one more akin to the state employee retirement system. We need stability for our retirees, our current employees, our future employees and of course, our taxpayers."

According to Barrett, despite proposed cuts and tax increases, his goal is to produce a balanced budget. To prepare for the anticipated pension contribution increase in 2023, the mayor is proposing the city set aside $8 million to begin meeting the obligation.

"We need all hands on deck, and that means each and every one of you. It’s about the future of the city we all love." — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

To do that and meet the demands of city government, Barrett proposes increasing the tax levy by 3.5% along with a property tax increase; homeowners in the city could expect about a $59 increase per year.

This could also lead to a reduction of 60 Milwaukee Police Department positions, but any reductions would be the result of retirements. However, with the pending 2023 pension contribution adjustments, he hasn't eliminated police layoffs from the future.

"We've avoided layoffs certainly in the police department," Barrett said. "I can't make that promise two or three years down the road if we don't get additional resources."

"I was beyond disappointed," Shawn C. Lauda, president of the Milwaukee Police Association said. "I was basically sickened. I think it's incredibly irresponsible for the mayor to put forth such a budget."

While Barrett touted the great work of the Milwaukee Police Department, by lowering crime in the city, he has said they will have to make some difficult decisions to maintain a balanced budget.

Lauda says public safety should be off the table.

"To cut services to people who protect life is to say, you are not prioritizing life," Lauda said. "I'm sorry. You're going to have to look somewhere else. Cut somewhere else."

Lauda says they're already understaffed by several hundred officers. The officers leaving for retirement amount to a roughly 3% decrease.

"The police services we provide are not expendable," Lauda said. "When you reduce police services, make no mistake about it, you're talking about lives being lost."

Another solution Barrett is proposing is a 1%bsales tax increase. It's not a part of his budget, but he's urging state lawmakers to allow for an April vote on the referendum. He says the increase would more than cover police budget costs, equipment for the fire department and lead paint and lead service line replacement.

"We are in a very unique situation," Barrett said. "Other major cities have other sources of revenue and we're hamstrung. We're not asking the state for money. Do I think we should get more money? Of course I do. But this effort is not asking the state for more money."

And the Mayor knows he'll need help in order to balance a budget that his office calls the most difficult of his tenure.

"We face challenges that are larger than we have faced before. I need your help. Our residents need your help. The city is at a crossroads. We need all hands on deck, and that means each and every one of you. It’s about the future of the city we all love," Barrett said,

The proposed budget will be discussed further Oct. 7.