But no money for the Hop
Assembly Republicans have proposed a sales tax plan for the city of Milwaukee that would put police officers back in Milwaukee Public Schools for the first time since 2016.
The plan would allow the financially hobbled city to levy a local 2% sales tax with the promise of state shared revenue to help pay down on its ballooning pension debt. But in addition to putting cops back in hallways, the legislative plan prohibits any use of funding for the city’s chronically troubled streetcar, the Hop.
While the specifics of the plan are still being negotiated and any local sales taxes would have to be approved by voters, state Rep. Bob Donovan, R-Greenfield, who worked on the plan, told the Badger Institute he was “pretty confident” in the support for the school resource officers.
“Public safety was a concern,” Donovan said. “I can’t tell you if 25 will be the final number. I would have preferred even more. It’s my understanding the mayor wanted those resource officers back.”
The Badger Institute was first to report back in February that Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson had gotten involved in discussions with the Milwaukee Police Department and MPS to restore the police protection. Calls for police service are up dramatically at the 34 MPS high schools.
Johnson indicated at the time he expected officers to be assigned to schools sometime in 2023.
When asked by the Badger Institute about the state assembly proposal, Johnson’s spokesman, Jeff Fleming provided a statement:
“There are continuing, productive discussions underway with those involved in finalizing legislation. Both the Milwaukee police and the Milwaukee Public Schools are also talking about appropriate and effective police involvement in promoting school safety.
“Public safety in schools and throughout the city is a priority for the mayor. He is closely monitoring the issue of police in schools, and, at this stage he is sharing his perspective just with those directly involved in the discussions.”
Under activist pressure, the MPS board voted to remove officers from schools in 2016. Officers were allowed to patrol around schools but off of school property until June 2020 after the arrest that led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Leaders Igniting Transformation, the activist group most responsible for the removal of officers in 2016, decried the Republican plan. While its leaders have repeatedly ignored requests by the Badger Institute to discuss the redeployment, the group issued a statement on Friday.
“This plan undermines the authority of the elected school board officials and their constituents while also lacking the nuanced understanding that is needed to effectively address the challenges our schools face.
“We know that placing armed officers in schools DOES NOT make students and staff safer; nor does it address the root cause of so-called “incidents” that occur in school settings. In reality, it leads to patterns of criminalizing youth and feeding the school-to-prison/deportation pipeline.”
Floyd’s death sparked a nationwide movement, particularly in cities like Milwaukee run by Democrats, to sharply reduce funding and staffing for their police departments. Many of those city councils, facing rising crime rates, have sharply changed course.
Included in the Republican sales tax plan is a funding set-aside to allow the city of Milwaukee to increase the number of police officers to more than 1,700. MPD’s ranks have been depleted over the past 25 years by 24.8%, or an actual reduction of 538 officers, between a peak in 1997 and 2022, the Badger Institute reported in its Mandate for Madison, which makes the case for more police. The number of budgeted positions has been reduced by 16%, while the city’s population has fallen only 4% during that period.
The city’s Budget Office says 1,560 of the 1,630 officer positions in the city budget are currently filled.
“Sadly, there were bad decisions made during that period,” Donovan said. “Like nothing I’d seen in 20 years as an alderman. All those good quality officers now working in other places.”
The thrust of the plan, however, is to address pension promises for which the city cannot pay. The non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, which has for years warned of a pension crisis for the city, estimates that over the next five years the annual pension obligation will double to nearly $140 million.
Milwaukee and other cities across Wisconsin are currently making liberal use of flexible rules to funnel millions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding into gaping holes in their budgets for basic city services, as the Badger Institute reported in December.
Milwaukee Budget and Management Director Nik Kovac told the Badger Institute that when that federal funding was exhausted by the end of 2024, he expected budget shortfalls in each of the next two years of at least $100 million.
“It was eye opening to me,” Donovan said, “to see just how seriously Milwaukee is facing a fiscal cliff. Right now, they’re basically running their fire department on ARPA funds.”
Also teetering on that fiscal cliff is the Hop. Assembly Republicans went out of their way to stipulate that no funds from a sales tax plan be used to defray the operating deficit and maintenance for the streetcar, the public works pride of former mayor Tom Barrett.
The Badger Institute has for more than four years investigated the Hop and its construction overruns, the suspect claims of its economic benefit to the city and its nearly non-existent ridership.
As Ald. Mark Borkowski told the Badger Institute in November 2019, the Hop was a “financial anvil around the city of Milwaukee’s neck.”
Republican leaders have proposed, and Gov. Tony Evers appears to be receptive to, returning 20% of all sales taxes collected every year to counties and cities. While that proposal and hundreds of other budget items are currently being negotiated, Evers’ proposed budget calls for the state to return $576.2 million to local governments in the 2024 budget year.
At a press conference Thursday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, touted the local spending proposal as “the single largest investment in local governments in the history of Wisconsin.”
Mark Lisheron is the Managing Editor of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.