We can wait no longer for county reform

April 19, 2013

There's been some interesting debate recently around the proposal of Assembly Bill 85 by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) to reduce the pay and clarify the scope of the Milwaukee County Board. Opponents of the reform have cited in their defense everything from "local control" to "checks and balances" and warning of a complete meltdown of democracy as we know it. From reading a recent op-ed in the Journal Sentinel by two county supervisors, one would think even George Washington had a soft spot in his heart for the Milwaukee County Board!

The one thing that seems to be missing from all the rhetoric and debate is an objective look about how effective our current form of county governance really is.

My wife and I are those coveted "educated young professionals" you often hear about in the news. I'm an information technology professional in the health care industry, and my wife has a post-graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and works for Milwaukee Public Schools. Despite having multiple opportunities in other cities, we've chosen to live in Milwaukee and raise our four children here because we've always felt Milwaukee's quality of life was something special.

However, we've become more and more concerned as the continued dysfunction of the County Board - the governance body that oversees many of those quality-of-life services - is starting to have a negative effect on things such as our parks, museums, transit system and, most important, public safety. For over a decade now, we've waited patiently for the promises of "reform" to materialize from Milwaukee County government.

Every election cycle, we've heard about it, as I'm sure you have. Reform is coming! On the nightly news, we are told, "It's a new day in Milwaukee County government!" and that change is (once again) just around the corner.

Just one more report from the "long-range strategic planning committee to study the feasibility of long-range strategic planning committees" and we could finally get down to tackling the problems facing our parks, transit system, mental health services and public safety! You know, the real issues that families such as mine expect our county government to be fixing.

And then another election would roll around, and bus fares go up while routes are cut. Our parks deteriorate a little more. More people die while in county custody.

This dysfunction with the County Board really hit home for me last fall when County Executive Chris Abele put his "parks patrol" plan forward. As someone who spends a lot of time in our county parks with my family, I was happy to hear about municipal governments cooperating with the county to make our parks safer. It would have saved tax dollars and put police officers who would be able to respond to service calls more quickly in charge of safety for our 144 county parks. It was a good example of regional cooperation to boot.

For the County Board and Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., however, it also had the unfortunate side effect of taking away some of their control over the parks. A corresponding budget cut meant the sheriff might have to choose between employing deputies or keeping his stable of parade ponies stocked. In defense of the status quo, they patched up their differences, became sudden allies and killed the proposal that had the support of nearly every municipality in Milwaukee County.
Or take the example of the barren strip of land formerly known as the Park East Freeway. Despite the county-owned portions being available for development during the single largest construction boom in a generation and a number of developments proposed, mature trees remain the only residents there - a telling sign in itself. But how can any developer build a housing or entertainment complex there when they have to negotiate with 18 or 19 supervisors who each have his or her own agenda?

It's for reasons like this and others that I've decided to support the legislation proposed by Sanfelippo. As a Democrat, I might not agree with him on many other issues, but this isn't about being a Democrat or a Republican. It's about putting Milwaukee County in a position to deliver the services we all pay for in the most effective manner possible. For over a decade, we've waited patiently on the promises of self-reform to materialize from the County Board, and it just hasn't happened.

That's why I believe now is the time to act in order to implement a smarter, more effective and more cost-efficient government. Meaningful reform is critical in protecting and enhancing the quality-of-life services that make this a great place to live and are key in helping attract and retain those "educated young professionals" who will help our region prosper for generations to come.

Dan Cody is board president of The Park People of Milwaukee County.

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