By the county’s own admission, “Milwaukee County is facing a budget crisis.” Right now, the county government is on pace to go $42.5 million over budget next year.
Not only is going over budget generally believed to be a bad idea, it’s also not legally allowed. But there are also limits to what can or can’t be cut — you can’t abolish the police, per federal requirements — and you can’t just simply “raise taxes” above certain limits. Although raising taxes, from bumping up the sales tax to raising property taxes on certain homes, is allowed.
To find out what the people want, the county has created a new online tool that Milwaukeeans can play with. In it, you can raise funding for things like Mental Health & Community Support Services. But to fund that, you’ll need to make cuts from things like the Bus System or Policing or the Zoo.
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For certain things, like the Zoo, you can cut its entire $17.4 million budget. But for other things, cuts are limited. Funding for the airport is locked in at $99.4 million, the $17.9 million Sheriff Operations budget can’t be trimmed by more than $715,000, and no more than $11.4 million can be removed from the Bus System’s $162.5 million county budget.
You can borrow from the county’s savings account, but of course that means we have a smaller rainy day fund.
(You see why budget balancing is such a challenge?)
The county’s “A Balancing Act” tool is, in a nerdy way, fun to play with. Also, County Executive David Crowley said that this type of community input will directly inform how decisions are made this fall. “Now, more than ever, it’s important we get feedback from the constituents we serve so we are as informed as possible as we make the critical decisions in our 2021 budget,” Crowley’s office said in a release announcing the tool Friday, Sept. 18. The release leads with the question: “How would you balance it?”
It isn’t super in-depth, however. You can’t, for example, directly cut specific parts of the County Administration. You can only trim its total budget. But the easy-to-use comment feature can be used to inform whoever looks at your input what your thinking is behind each cut. In that way, should you say the Court System’s funding should be trimmed, you can give input as to where it should be trimmed.
This tool, in and of itself, is a very easy way to give public input while also not having to go yell at a drab County Board meeting.
The tool was crafted by Balancing Act, a lauded public policy consulting firm based in Colorado. According to its website, the firm’s focus is “specializing in engagement-driven strategies and public policy leadership development.” Right now, that focus is on building online-based tools that allow the public to give input into governmental decisions.
Several other major U.S. cities — including Madison (Dane County), Baltimore, Virginia Beach, San Jose, Pittsburgh and San Diego — have already (or are still) used tools for this purpose from Balancing Act.