PEOPLE-Local 645

  • Quality of Life Alliance

Did Maintenance Money Go To Political Ploy?

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on July 15, 2010

From Milwaukee County First:

Last week, I raised a number of questions regarding the tragedy at O’Donnell Park, where a concrete facade, after twenty years, suddenly fell and killed a teenage boy and injured two others.

One of the questions I raised was in regards to Scott Walker raiding capital funds that would have gone to maintenance:

Another question that needs investigated is whether the fact that Walker has been raiding the capital funds, which had historically gone into building inspections and maintenance and similar projects, and using that money to cover the holes in the operational costs of his budgets, contributed to any possible deferred maintenance issues.  Likewise, does the fact that he had cut the number of building inspectors down to one have an impact on all of this is worthy of further consideration.

In a post at BizTimes.com, Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan gives some numbers as to just how deeply Walker dipped into the capital funds and what it meant to the county’s long-term picture:

In 2002, shortly after being elected County Executive, Scott Walker was successful in changing that county ordinance, enabling him to divert millions in sales tax revenue from the capital budget to the operating budget.

Over the last eight years, more than $112 million in sales tax revenue has been diverted from capital fund to the operating budget. This is similar to the State of Wisconsin using transportation fund dollars for social programs, something that Scott Walker has publicly criticized.

Scott Walker’s diversion of capital dollars is a major reason for the distressed condition of many Milwaukee County’s assets, including county trunk highways and parkway roads.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s political pandering on taxes has come at an extremely high price in both human life and long-term asset value.

In 2006, during County Executive Walker’s first attempt to run for governor, he shifted $21 million in sales tax revenue from the capital budget to the operating budget. This deception was an effort to mask the need for a property tax increase or painful cuts to social services and parks. At the time, $21 million was the equivalent of an 8-percent increase in the property tax levy.

We constantly hear the political rhetoric that claims we don’t need to make sacrifices, and that we can still have lower taxes and all the services we want. When County Executive Walker has been challenged on this point, he has simply replied that it is a false choice between service cuts or higher taxes. When there is no honest debate of the budget, you have no choices.

BizTimes.com allowed Walker to have a chance at rebuttal, which was rather misleading and sounded more like a campaign damage control spin than an actual rebuttal:

We all want answers when a tragedy occurs, but, at the moment of crisis, some have jumped to conclusions on the status of deferred maintenance. Our examination of previous inspection and maintenance records shows that the county did not defer any necessary maintenance, and ongoing maintenance projects are prioritized with public safety in mind.

When the annex parking structure showed signs of deterioration, I took steps to have it removed before it could become a hazard.  Milwaukee County residents can be assured that we will immediately address important maintenance issues with a close eye to protecting those who use our buildings.

I presented my first budget in the fall of 2002 for 2003, and that year through 2010 we spent and budgeted more than $780 million on infrastructure maintenance and improvements throughout Milwaukee County.

Still, our debt went down nearly 30 percent by 2010 and our government workforce is down by 20 percent.

I will continue to work to keep property taxes in check for our residents, and always with the public’s safety at the forefront.

As I said, Walker’s response is misleading, to say the least.

Early reports showed that it was at least five years since the last full inspection was done.  A lot of damage can happen to a building in that length of time, especially if it is not being properly maintained.

When Walker proposed to have the annex razed, there was disrepair, but it was much more than “showing the signs” as Walker puts it.  From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Dispute may spare Courthouse Annex – October 26, 2005), we find that one of the primary factors forcing a decision was the Marquette Interchange project.  Furthermore:

If demolition does not proceed in early 2006, it would have to wait until after 2008 because of the Marquette project, the state has said.

If the county keeps the 35-year-old building, the board likely would have to approve funds to repair the annex, which engineers said needs emergency work and $20 million in long-term maintenance. The annex connects to the courthouse by a skywalk and tunnel, and it contains office space.

With regard to the budget towards maintenance of the infrastructure, there are two things to keep in mind.

One, the amount being given to the maintenance is less and less with each passing year.  This is due to Walker’s raiding of the capital funds which would normally go to maintenance, as Supervisor Weishan pointed out.

The other thing is despite his claims, the parks alone have almost $300 million in deferred maintenance and repairs.  There is no way of telling how much more is due for the various building and other parts of the infrastructure.  Repairs to the mental health complex alone could run as high as $15 million.

But the last two lines are the most egregious of the entire post.

First of all, he did not reduce the debt, he merely shuffled it down the road so that we will have to pay even more than we otherwise would have had to.

Secondly, it was his cuts to staff that has led to some of the county’s biggest problems and has done the most to endanger public safety and the county’s fiscal stability.

The threats to public safety can be seen by deaths at the House of Correction, deaths at BHD, women being sexually assaulted at BHD, or the recent tragedy at O’Donnell Park.

There is also a myriad of smaller, but still serious, problems that will plague Milwaukee County for years to come that can be directly attributed to Walker’s  repeated cuts to staff and raids on the capital funds, ranging from the decrepit condition of many of our buses to the increase in vandalism in the parks, to name but two.

Throughout his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker’s main motivation has not been being the guardian of the public safety or a responsible steward of our money.  His main motivation is how he could advance his political career.  And now we will be paying for it, in more ways than one, for years to come.

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