November 7: Referendum to Preserve the Future of Public Safety


The future of our paramedic program and additional funding for police officers is officially going before the voters — you.

The South Milwaukee Common Council on Tuesday approved an operating funds referendum question asking taxpayers to increase the tax levy by $616,641, or less than 6 percent, to maintain current paramedic services and hire two additional police officers.

The special election will be held on Tuesday, November 7. If approved by voters, homeowners would pay an additional $52 per year for every $100,000 of their home’s value starting in 2018 and beyond.

Here is how the question will read on the Nov. 7 ballot …

Under state law, the increase in the levy of the City of South Milwaukee for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year, 2018, is limited to .09%, which results in a levy of $10,774,142. Shall the City of South Milwaukee be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year, 2018, by a total of 5.73%, which results in a levy of $11,381,095?

This funding would enable the city to adequately fund our paramedic program for years to come, and help us overcome funding challenges, arising from issues out of our control, that have been building for years. It would also help us add two cops, strengthening the second-smallest police force in the county, amid increasing demand for their services.

It took many years to get to this point, starting with more than a decade of state-imposed levy limits that have financially hamstrung fully developed cities like us (and many others) by not allowing us to increase the size of our operating tax levy more than the amount of our growth. That number is almost 0. For 2018, for example, the state says we can increase our tax levy by $9,688 … to fund our $19.7 million budget.

Costs increase. Our operating levy, essentially, can’t. And it’s been that way for a decade. We are paying that price now, and we will continue to, until the legislature fixes this.

There are other factors, too, especially when it comes to paramedic program funding: significantly reduced payments by the county and an increasing number of people on government insurance (and their low reimbursement rates), among them.

So while we have worked hard for many years, well before my time as mayor, to deliver strong value for your taxpayer dollar — and deliver fiscally responsible budgets that reflect our enduring reality of doing more with less — here we are … needing to address the underfunding of key services with the only tool the legislature has given us.

A referendum.

You can learn more about the referendum, find plenty of data and other background information on what led us to this point, and see what options we’ve considered to deal with these challenges here. I also encourage you to review the community survey results from this spring — which showed strong support, among respondents, for seeking to potentially increasing taxes to pay for these vital city services.

Also, look for additional communications in the weeks ahead via mail, our city digital and social channels, and public meetings. I’ll also regularly update on this blog, and on my mayoral Facebook page.

We know there are questions about what got us to this point, and the potential solutions for our funding dillemma. We will do our best to answer them.

We know this will not be an easy decision for many, and we do not enter into the decision to call a referendum lightly.

But we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing when it comes to funding our paramedics — pulling money from our reserves to cover shortfalls. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing when it comes to our police — operating with a too-lean department when we are being asked to do more and more.

Enough is enough. We’ve kicked this problem down the road for too long.

On Nov. 7, we will see if you, the voters, agree.

And some legalese: Along the lines of my blog disclaimer, this post is my opinion and does not reflect that of the city or of the common council.


Filed under South Milwaukee

10 responses to “November 7: Referendum to Preserve the Future of Public Safety

  1. SM Guy

    Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to call the referendum the “only tool” to address underfunding for these services, especially just 3 days after a new Economic Development Director position is announced with no referendum? If I had a necessary expense go up in my life, the first thing I would do is look to see if other expenses can be cut or extra cash I could make on the side – not run to my boss and ask for a raise. You can look to some of the groups on Facebook or Nextdoor and see some other tools, including the library, the arborist, benches-for-bums, sidewalks, the school board, the quarter million dollar consultant, the number of alderpersons, year-round street parking permits, increased charges for police to close streets for private events (UPAF, races in the park…), enforcement of violations rather than grants to fix them, etc.

  2. I would argue that we’ve made significant cuts already over the years, and recently. We are lean in every department, too lean in many cases. Further cuts are cuts to people, which means cuts to services. Sure we could always cut more, but we did not sense strong support to do it. We asked residents about that in the survey; feedback was mixed. It was strongly in favor of potentially increasing taxes to fund these vital services.

    As we do this, we can’t just stop investing in other areas of the city, or we lose ground. We can and have to do both.

    On downtown: We went many, many years with little investment, and that can’t continue. Our Downtown Grant Program — funded at $75,000; the figure has been erroneously reported on Nextdoor — has been a success, beyond my expectations for year one, as we partner with business owners to help transform some of downtown’s worst buildings. There will be more to come. At the same time, we continue to push hard on enforcement. We also must invest in streetscaping, after decades of not doing it. The lighting is 60 years old and failing, the trees are dead, there is little planting, and sidewalks are in disrepair. You call it “benches for bums.” I call it a critical investment in our city center — one that I would also point out is a capital project, pulling from a different pool of money than our operating budget.

    On the economic development director: This is an investment in the future of our city overall, one that we need more than ever in the history of South Milwaukee. Just this fact alone shows the need: We have more than 1 million square feet of industrial, office and warehouse space available in our city center right now, and redeveloping that will be incredibly time-consuming and complicated. We need a professional to help guide us through that. Also, we are hoping the position will be funded with no new dollars from our operating budget, with the additional funds (beyond what we were paying our former economic development coordinator) coming from our TIF districts and grants.

    On urban forestry: When I was an alderman, a consultant called South Milwaukee “the Wild West of urban forestry.” It wasn’t a compliment. We went many, many years turning our back on our street trees, and with emerald ash borer in front of us, we couldn’t do that anymore. We needed to, and still need to, invest in this city service, like almost every city in the state has. And we are. We have hundreds more trees yet to remove, and we’re more focused than ever on planting, too.

    These are just a few areas you referenced. I hope this provides some context as to why we’re making the choices we are.

    I also appreciate the opportunity to correct misstatements made as this debate continues. For example, in addition to the Nextdoor post misstating the money in the building grant program, the cost of the branding consultant was also grossly overstated (incorrect). We have spent $20,000, not the ten-times-that figure quoted there. And that project is on hold until 2018.

  3. SM Guy

    That’s all well and good. There is a reason for everything. The point, though, is why is it that the paramedics and police department that are being tied to the referendum and tax increase? Why weren’t those fully funded and any of the rest of these expenses put up for approval? It seems that this is the typical way for local governments to respond to any financial difficulties – threaten loss of police and fire since those are seen as two of the most essential services and most likely not to have the people vote against. (Milwaukee is pulling the same threat with their sales tax idea. It’s also the same cry you hear from any of a number of municipalities when the state suggests lower funding.)

    On a related note from re-reading the initial post. This is being referred to as a “special election”. Does that imply that there are no other items / offices to be voted on that day? If that’s the case, what is the cost? That could seem like a strategy, knowing that special elections have low turnout and the low turnout of the survey suggests a win for the direction the administration want to take.

    • Bruno

      You are correct, SM guy! Special elections cost additional money and calling one is not being “fiscal conservative.”

      • The state significantly limits when communities can put referendum questions on the ballot. Referenda cannot be called until after the municipality knows its allowable levy increase for the following budget year, which the state publishes in August. That leaves a fall election as the only option. With no other election planned for November, we decided to call a special election, so we have certainty around paramedic and police funding for the 2018 budget year, and can start addressing the structural funding issues immediately. The cost of the election is estimated at $15,000.

  4. Mike Zingsheim


  5. ray

    I agree with Mike Z. If you look at the police call history there is almost a daily call to Walmart. I also think the cliental they have attacked has contributed to the crime rate.

  6. Rocandroo

    If these “funding challenges” have been building for years, then why wasn’t this treated as a priority above all the other benign projects SM has been putting money towards. This should be a given that police and paramedic funding is properly allocated and then put money towards other less important projects. Public safety is more important than anything else and we should be able to trust that our public officials understand that. In the private sector we are constantly told to do more with less, and now SM wants to squeeze more money out of the taxpayers who are already hurting financially.

  7. Melanie

    Just get out and vote, they are banking on low turnout from the scared senior citizens, just like the school saying we will have to cut out sports, music, etc. etc. etc.

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