Damage Report — Scott Walker’s two years of savaging County government
In 2002, Scott Walker burst onto our political landscape portraying himself as a decent, concerned leader who was angry about the pension plan that was enacted by County leaders. Walker called for the recall of then-County Executive Tom Ament and said he would run for the position himself. He voraciously hammered Ament and other County leaders saying they weren’t looking out for the best interest of the citizens of the County and pointed out that, if elected, he would. Stirring up anger would be key to Walker’s success in his campaign to be the next Milwaukee County Exec, and he had the help of conservative talk radio show hosts who promoted Walker and demeaned anyone who opposed him.
Walker campaigned hard and promised that citizens would not, and should not, have to pay for the pension plan which had been enacted in 2000. Voters saw hope in this young man. He was young, well groomed, presentable, and affable. He seemed sincere and believable.
Until this time, most County leaders had seen Walker as the lunatic fringe of the right. A conservative Republican, no one ever imagined he would have a chance to win the heavily democratic Milwaukee County. His first race had been against Gwenn Moore for a seat in the State legislature. Although he lost that race, he caught the political bug and wanted more. After dropping out of college, he moved to Wauwatosa and won a State Assembly seat.
As a State Representative, Walker was known to be a press hound – faxing out press releases on any matter; state, federal or local. One reporter even laughed at a Walker press release condemning the million-man march on Washington. ‘Who cares whether a white republican from the suburbs is opposed to a march for black unity’ the reporter confided. Despite Walker hinting that he may run against Jim Sensenbrenner for his congressional seat, most believed Walker would be resigned to live out his political career as the State Assembly Representative for Wauwatosa.
Walker’s stint in the State Assembly showed him to have a decisively anti-Milwaukee streak. He shocked many local officials when he voted to cut $702,715 from the amount of state shared revenues that were earmarked for Milwaukee and sent it to Lafayette county. He supported “truth in sentencing” legislation but opposed requiring that a cost estimate be done to see what the result of this legislation would be.
Fast forward to the County Executive race of 2002 where Walker faced Hales Corners Village President Jim Ryan. Ryan used nearly the same strategy that Walker did. This proved fatal since voters who already had Republican tendencies were going to vote for Walker whose partisan loyalties were not questioned. Ryan failed to inspire moderates and liberals since his message was essentially the same as Walker’s. Democratic voters who would have never voted for a Republican, heard Walker’s seemingly attractive message and decided that they could cast a vote for Walker since County races are non-partisan.
During the race, Walker pledged to cut his pay if elected. He went from being a $49,000 a year State Representative to being a $70.000 a year County Executive and proudly proclaimed, with the support of an ever-loving mainstream media, that he had cut his own pay. In just a few short years, Walker had gone from being a college dropout, to an ascendant career in politics.
Cooking the books
As County Executive, Walker hasn’t kept his promise that people would not “pay” for the County’s fiscal woes. In his past two budgets he has systematically over-estimated revenues, causing a fiscal crisis that will automatically trigger by mid-summer. This mechanism allows Walker to keep his tax freeze pledge and true to his extremist ideology, cut programs and employees mid year. This past year there were several mid-year cuts with the pool closings gaining the most attention.
Luck played a large part in the 2003 Walker budget. Walker under budgeted snow removal costs and with little snow this past year in January through April, projections were on target. He also eliminated lifeguards at Milwaukee County beaches. Normally this would have been a crisis, which could have led to drownings. But again Walker dodged the PR bullet since beaches were closed due to high bacteria counts that made swimmers stay away from the water. Not surprisingly, the County Executive has been silent on the critical issue of pollution despoiling Milwaukee’s lakefront.
He wasn’t so lucky with overstated parks revenues. Much like the CEO of a disgraced and scandal riddled Tech Company, Walker dictated the artificial inflation of revenues to match projections, ordering the parks department to increase revenue estimates by $2,000,000 but providing no means for the increase.
As the deficit became clear Walker ordered then-Parks Director Sue Baldwin to lay off employees and to recommend mid-year cuts. On Walker’s request, Baldwin had already made drastic cuts to personnel and there was nowhere else to cut but services. On the list of cuts he could make was the early closure of pools that are open for the summer. Walker ordered the pools be closed and when the temperatures rose, so did public outrage. Walker used Baldwin as his scapegoat and fired her, but not before he invited television news cameras to the Parks department to transform the firings into a media circus.
Promises made, promises broken
During the 2002 campaign, Walker announced to a large crowd that he would not cut AODA (Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse) treatment funding. Months later, much to the chagrin of those that had believed him, Walker presented his 2003 budget to the County board including significant AODA cuts. Treatment advocates were outraged, and many in the faith community were shocked that he would say one thing and do another. They reminded him that they had video recorded the meeting and his promise. The County board later restored some of the money. Under pressure, Walker did not veto the funding the board restored.
Not only did Walker cut AODA, but he also cut GAMP (General Assistance Medical Program). The uninsured have relied on this program for years to provide health care for the poor. GAMP is what most indigent people rely on for basic care. Walker instituted a toll of $35 for people to use the GAMP program. The obvious problem was that the indigent don’t have the $35. Many people are now delaying care in the hope that they will get better. As a result, area hospitals have experienced a spike in emergency room visits this year, contributing to higher insurance premiums for the public and crowded emergency rooms. An additional irony here is that the County subsidized insurance premiums have risen dramatically more than either the City or the State plans for the same time period.
2004 Damage Report
Perhaps the most startling and appalling cut Walker made in this coming years budget was the cut to battered womens shelters. Women and their children who are victims of domestic violence have few places to turn. They often bear the brunt of physical and mental abuse as long as they can, and only then do they flee from their abusers. These shelters operate on the margins and ask the public for donations so they can continue to stay open. Foundations and businesses are a mainstay for these shelters but with tough economic times, they donate less than in times of prosperity. It is a bitter irony that Walker proposed the cut at the worst possible time for these shelters. Fortunately, the County Board had restored some of the funding. The only thing saving this from a veto is the public shock at the heartlessness of the Walker cut combined with the fact that this is an election year. In practical terms, a veto would lose him votes in the upcoming April election.
Corrections officers rely on keeping inmates busy to reduce behavioral problems, foster job skills and provide a productive means for the perpetrators of crime to contribute to the community. As such, the House of Corrections (HOC) has run a farm and fish hatchery on the HOC grounds. Produce from the farm goes to feed inmates and the rest is donated to local food banks. The fish are used to stock ponds in the County park system. Walker eliminated both the farm and hatchery from his budget
Walker put priority on his conservative social agenda this year when he cut funding for the day reporting center (DRC). The DRC actually saves County tax dollars by allowing non-violent convicts the ability to take classes that will make them job-ready instead of locking them up. People who have served their sentence at the DRC in lieu of incarceration are much less likely to reoffend. Although the per inmate cost to the county is much less with the DRC than for traditional incarceration, Walker chose the traditional conservative “lock ‘em up” approach rather than less expensive rehabilitation.
In Milwaukee County, the budget address has always been a way for the County Executive to promote his own ideas and to share his vision for the future. Walker took the unusual approach of using his budget address to present a spiteful diatribe on the “sins of the past” he placed squarely on the shoulders of former County Executive Tom Ament. Despite this being his second budget, Walker continued to look to the past for blame for what he was about to do. As if to say, “it’s not my fault”, Walker cursed the name of Ament at least a half dozen times in the first five minutes of his speech. It’s been nearly two years since Walker was successful in promoting the recall of Ament, but he continues to resist any indication that problems in the budget are his own fault.
Phantom Revenues, Ghostly Savings
The Walker budget understates expenses and overstates revenues. He relies on $2,000,000 more in court related revenues which he hopes to get from the state through increased lobbying and some good old-fashioned wishful thinking. The Doyle administration has already said it’s not going to happen. Parks are anticipated to draw in $19 million in fees and other revenues, but on a good year, the County only brings in about $17.3 million.
County bus fares increase 25 cents. In the past, each time bus fares increase, ridership decreases. It’s simple economics where the laws of supply and demand rule. Since Walker has a track record of opposing mass transit, it is likely that when ridership diminishes, routes will be cut, forcing mass transit into a death spiral. Para-transit, the only transportation service the disabled can rely on, will also raise fares.
Walker believes he will save at least $2 million by combining the Department of Public Works with the Parks Department. Essentially, Walker has destroyed the Parks Department, whose management he had already fired. The new department, the Department of Parks and Public Infrastructure, will sport DPPI on all of its trucks. County workers are now affectionately calling Walker’s new department “Dippy”.
For Sale: Your County land
Walker expects to raise an additional $5 million from the sale of County lands. Walker projects that the Medical College will purchase some land on the county grounds. Last year, Walker tried to sell land to childrens hospital but they didn’t buy it. Also for sale is the area of the County grounds that will have a detention pond on it. Walker expects that MMSD will be a willing buyer. The parking lot on 6th and State, which is currently used for a mix of parking Sheriff’s department squads and public parking, is to be sold.
After a two year long Walker love-fest, the mainstream media is finally starting to cover some of the problems Walker is creating with his faulty budgeting.
The question has to be asked, what drives him? Walker is a true believer in socially conservative government. A republican to the core, Walker has actually helped to pioneer the politics of shifting responsibility, while claiming his regret at making deep and in many cases, painful service cuts. By inserting unrealistically rosy revenue projections into next years budget, Walker has again won approval of a budget that will require deep cuts by mid-summer; well after his upcoming April election. Parks, bus services and other programs will have to be trimmed back or eliminated in order to fill the problems of a built in budget deficit. Last year he said the need to close pools earlier than normal was due to an unexpected deficit. County residents should expect to see a need for similar “unforeseen” cuts in 2004. However, Walker has learned that suburban voters (his political base) take their parks very seriously. For that reason, cuts to social spending and transportation are more likely to fall victim to Walker’s budget hatchet.
The Republican Party web site saluted Walker as a compassionate conservative. While he is conservative, “compassion” certainly doesn’t reflect the policies that Walker has championed.
In all fairness, Walker does have a reputation for studying the issues. Despite his innate lack of ability, he reads voraciously and sources tell me he tries to understand issues. The problem is that he just doesn’t get it, or arguably, he just doesn’t care. Like every County budget in the last decade, this years budget was a difficult one. Walker has yet to realize that you cannot cut yourself out of a hole.
Whether his myopic policies are due to a lack of caring, lack of ability or slavish adherence to a socially conservative agenda, the end result is that people without means have paid greatly with this budget. Under the Walker administration, the poor have been relegated to second class citizens.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, July 29, 2004
Budget impedes county mail flow
Budget and staff cutbacks have slowed the courthouse’s mail distribution system to a crawl, officials complain…”We just can’t have that,” said Circuit Court Chief Judge Michael Sullivan. “We have judgments that have to go out in a timely fashion, briefs for criminal cases that must be received. In order for judges to be properly prepared, we need to get documents on time.”…Sullivan warned that if the belt stays too tight, the courts could not guarantee proper and timely procedures. “If the delays continue, that would affect people’s rights,” the chief judge said.
National Public Radio, November 9, 2003
Milwaukee Park System Suffers
Budget cuts have hit the park system in Milwaukee, Wis., especially hard. Long considered among the nation’s finest, supporters now fear for its future. Bob Bach of member station WUWM reports.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, November 12, 2003
First County bus service cuts are coming soon; Fares to rise to $1.75 starting Jan 4, highest in nation
Scott Walker recommended hiking the basic adult cash fare from $1.50 to $1.75, eliminating eight bus routes, reducing service on four others and slashing late-night service…The basic fare would be the highest of any comparable bus system in the 48 contiguous states…Walker told transit union leaders Friday he was glad…
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 21, 2003
Budget cut leaves (homeless and battered womens) shelters scrambling; Agencies say they lack resources to cover proposed county trim
Emergency shelters for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse are scrambling to reverse a cut in funding from Milwaukee County proposed by County Executive Scott Walker. The cut’s timing could not be worse, shelter operators say, because private funds have tightened up and the sour economy has pushed more people onto the streets. The 2004 budget move caught shelter operators by surprise because Walker made a special point in his budget address Thursday to highlight homeless-shelter funding as one of several vital services “that once showed up on a cut list” but made it into his budget.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 16, 2003
Walker park cuts slammed; Grass cut every 15 days; bathrooms shut; paths won’t be plowed
County supervisors heaped criticism Tuesday on County Executive Scott Walker’s mass layoff of parks workers after learning that mowing is now on a 15- to 20-day rotation, many parks bathrooms are locked, winter sports will virtually disappear this season and snow-covered park paths will go uncleared…The committee, on a 5-2 vote, went on record against what Supervisor Lynne DeBruin’s motion called the “destruction” of the parks system…Supervisor Gerry Broderick asked Mokrohisky if Walker’s conservative brand of politics included a long-term plan to downsize government right out of existence…(Supervisor) Aldrich repeatedly blasted Walker for saddling the parks budget with “phantom revenue” projections that created a $2.8 million deficit in the department this year.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 16, 2003
Walker carves chunk out of county budget for courts
Setting up a separation-of-powers confrontation with the judiciary, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker wants to freeze county-funded court spending in 2004 by reducing the number of court commissioners, court clerks and lawyers who help judges with legal research.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 14
Declining parks need inventive solutions
Most cities would kill to have even one park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary founder of landscape architecture in America. Milwaukee has three: Lake, Washington and Riverside. But that legacy is threatened by disrepair and an uncertain funding base
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 18
County cuts Mental health, Disability services, Bus routes and the Arts
Cutting deeper his second time around, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker on Thursday unveiled a 2004 budget that continues parks layoffs, trims or privatizes staffing in mental health and disability programs, cuts bus routes and raises fares, and dramatically reduces support for cultural and arts institutions.
Testimonial: Gary Ohm, Master Plumber, Milwaukee County
Parks Dept Master Plumber speaks out on decay of parks and lack of leadership
“We’re closing buildings because we’re told there’s no money for heating systems. We’re draining the buildings down (to winterize them). But when you do that to a building, the paint peels and interiors can be damaged by the frost. Normally maintenance workers check on buildings but now if a heating system goes down, there’s nobody to check for further damage. I couldn’t keep up on my projects in the past when we were down (had cut) three people, but now they cut another one.”