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Racial equity focus of new Milwaukee County Budget despite $42.5 million budget gap

Posted at 6:34 PM, Oct 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-01 19:34:24-04

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee County Executive says his first budget will focus on advancing racial equity in the face of one of the largest budget gaps the county has seen.

“The 2021 budget was created through the beginning stages of a racial equity focused strategic plan,” Crowley said. “The first strategic plan to be developed in Milwaukee County Government in over 20 years. Although, it will take generations to undo 400 years of systemic oppression, the 2021 budget is a start.”

This is a big step towards creating more equity in Milwaukee County, but it won’t be easy. Crowley says they’re facing a $42.5 million budget gap which is one of the largest the county has ever seen. However, as the first elected African American Milwaukee County Executive, Crowley says this is the time to start making changes like this.

“As the first African American elected to this seat, and the youngest, for me, it’s about, how do we start making bold and unprecedented changes during an unprecedented time?” Crowley said. “This is what we have to do in order to move forward. We can achieve racial equity but we have to be willing to put our best foot forward and be bold in doing so.”

The strategic plan has three areas of focus.

Create Intentional Inclusion

  • Reflect the full diversity of Milwaukee County at every level of County government.
  • Create and nurture an inclusive culture across Milwaukee County.

Bridge the gap

  • Determine what, where and how we deliver services based on the resolution of health disparities.
  • Break down silos across Milwaukee County government to maximize access and quality of services offered.
  • Apply a racial equity lens to all decisions.

Invest in equity

  • Invest “upstream” to address causes of health disparities.
  • Enhance Milwaukee County’s fiscal health and sustainability.
  • Dismantle barriers to diverse and inclusive communities.

“Milwaukee County acknowledges years of intentional, institutional and systemic racism has worked to the advantage of white residents and disadvantage to people of color,” Crowley said. “We have the power to make change.”

Racial disparities have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. African Americans are disproportionately impacted in health, income, education and more; all of which can be attributed to systemic issues. Milwaukee County already ranked as the second least healthy county in the state. Crowley says the large gap between revenue and expenses aren’t an excuse to avoid addressing this issue.

“Usually, when we think about budget gaps, folks like to say, we need to fund the things that are going to bring in more revenue,” Crowley said. “But we’re talking about being the healthiest county in Wisconsin. So, we have to figure out, how do we invest in those who have historically been under-served?”

It’s a big reason why Milwaukee has been labeled the most segregated city in America. In order to better understand equity, Crowley included the following graphic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in his presentation.

In order to achieve equity, Crowley says crucial services for under-served communities, like public transit, need to remain intact. The budget includes no significant cuts to any specific areas; the County Executive asked all departments to find cuts of two percent. Milwaukee County Transit System was facing a $12 million budget gap caused by the pandemic. The CARES Act filled that gap and will allow MCTS to continue operating next year without cutting any services or increasing fares.

“We realize how vital transit services are,” Crowley said. “There are no major changes to fixed routes or para-transit. Bus fares remain $2.25 cash or $2.00 with an M-Card or the mobile app. Milwaukee transit is essential in advancing equity.”

Some of these cuts will inevitably have an impact. Crowley says the Milwaukee County Parks System is facing a $1.2 million cut which will include closing four county pools; Jackson, Grobschmidt, Hales Corners and McCarty will remain closed while Noyes Pool will reopen next Fall.

But those difficult decisions were still made through the racial equity lens.

“We made sure to look at certain parks, how close they were to certain people, to certain pools, to make sure we were making equitable cuts,” Crowley said. “When we think about the need to invest in our parks, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say, we absolutely do. We all have a stake when it comes down to our parks. But again, this is a tough budget. Unfortunately, some of the pools will be closed but as long as we continue on this trajectory and focus on the one percent sales tax, which some say I’m recklessly optimistic about, we’ll be able to invest in our parks the way we should.”

That proposed one percent sales tax could generate up to $160 million in revenue. The advocacy group Move Forward says 25 percent of that money would go towards property tax relief with the rest distributed between Milwaukee County and its 19 municipalities to meet critical needs.

Crowley believes racism, which was first declared a public health crisis by Milwaukee in 2019, is as critical as it comes.

“When we think about systemic racism, it took over 400 years for us to be where we are right now,” Crowley said. “But it’s going to take a long time for us to see what we can achieve when we talk about racial equity and health disparities. I would say, give us some time as we continue to talk about that.”

The County Board of Supervisors will consider and may adopt amendments to the County Executive’s Budget. They will hold votes on adoption on November 9th. If there are any vetoes, the Board will meet again on November 16th.

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