Need For Plan In Other Areas Essential, Too!
While promoting public safety and reforming Milwaukee Public Schools should be the top priorities of Milwaukee leaders, we cannot neglect other challenges facing this community. Any plan for improving our city must, at a minimum, also recommend appropriate actions to be taken in the following areas:
Taxes and Local Government
Historically, the burden of funding local government operations in Milwaukee has fallen on individual property owners. While the city’s tax rate has been generally trending downwards, it has increased in the past two budgets, even with cuts in city services. Frozen state shared revenues, a rising debt-service levy and employee health benefit costs increasing faster than inflation are combining to create a structural imbalance in the city budget. The downward spiral of high taxes and reduced services cannot continue. We need to decrease the tax burden on Milwaukee homeowners. To achieve this, all options must be explored, including identifying new non-property-tax revenue sources and implementing a variety of cost-cutting measures. There are ample opportunities to reduce the layers of bureaucracy in this community. City departments could be merged with Milwaukee County or MPS agencies that perform similar functions. Why, for example, must the city, county and MPS each have its own public works department? Finally, as other municipalities have done, the City should seek to obtain cost-saving concessions from its labor unions.
Jobs and Economic Development
While Milwaukee is weathering the current economic downturn better than many cities, this community still has not recovered from the loss of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs in recent decades. The rates of unemployment and underemployment in Milwaukee, especially the central city, far exceed comparable rates at the regional and state levels. Yes, Downtown Milwaukee and nearby neighborhoods have experienced a healthy amount of new development. But we cannot “condo” our way out of economic stagnation. Rather than being manufacturers with national or international markets, Milwaukee’s largest private-sector employers are now health care systems and retailers – businesses that largely “recycle” money within the local economy, rather than bringing outside money into the community. Milwaukee needs to create new wealth and new jobs, not just re-divide and re-shuffle what it already has. To accomplish this, we need to identify specific industries with regional, national or international markets that are likely to grow and prosper because of Milwaukee’s unique set of attributes in terms of location, labor force characteristics, access to natural resources, etc. City leaders should then make every effort to show these industries what Milwaukee has to offer and encourage them to locate in this community.
The Milwaukee County Transit System is caught in a vicious cycle of fare increases and service cuts. In addition, the transit system has a limited service area that does not extend to high-growth communities in the metro area. These factors are making it increasingly difficult to bridge the gap between employment opportunities, primarily located in the suburbs, and available workers, primarily located in the central city. To reduce unemployment, increase labor availability to existing businesses and make Milwaukee a more attractive, “user-friendly” city for potential employers, residents and visitors, the city needs a vastly improved mass transit system. The Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line would represent only a marginal improvement, while a downtown streetcar loop would do little to achieve these goals. What Milwaukee really needs is a mass transit system that is operated and funded at the regional level and includes significant investment in fixed-guideway transit, perhaps light rail. The core of this system should connect major educational and health-care institutions (e.g., UWM, Marquette, Froedtert/Medical College), which offer a “built-in” ridership and are major transit-trip generators. A fixed-guideway system would revitalize the existing bus service and could be expanded in the future to serve the airport, major malls, industrial parks, etc. as funding and ridership allow.
Roads and Infrastructure
In a 2008 audit of Milwaukee’s residential street paving program, the city comptroller found that 21% of the city’s residential streets (214 street-miles) are in poor condition and that the residential street replacement cycle is currently 106 years – 2 to 3 times the useful life of a street. Also, the pace of future pavement condition deterioration is expected to accelerate if current levels of street maintenance and replacement continue. Adequate maintenance of streets, bridges and other public infrastructure is a basic city service that Milwaukee property owners expect for their tax dollars but are not receiving. Crumbling streets and deteriorating infrastructure also create a bad first impression of Milwaukee for visitors as well as potential residents and businesses. Milwaukee needs to find a new method of funding infrastructure repairs and improvements. The street replacement cycle must be reduced and more funds committed to preventive – rather than reactive – maintenance, so that pavement condition no longer reaches the “poor” category in the first place.
Among large cities, Milwaukee has one of the nation’s largest proportions of pre-World War II housing. This aging housing stock needs constant maintenance, periodic upgrading and, where appropriate, demolition of structures. While Milwaukee has witnessed significant new housing construction in recent years, this has been concentrated in or near Downtown or the East Side. Also, most new housing units are beyond the financial reach of typical Milwaukee residents. What is needed is a more balanced approach to housing – both geographically and in terms of affordability. This comprehensive housing strategy would emphasize both rehabilitation and new construction of housing units in all neighborhoods of the city. To meet the needs of Milwaukee’s diverse population, both rental and owner-occupied homes in all styles and price ranges should be encouraged. These initiatives should be combined with a renewed vigilance in the area of property code enforcement, which will ensure that both existing and newly-constructed housing units are properly maintained and remain in good condition for years to come.