There’s an election on April 1. It may not seem like a major one. But there’s a question on the ballot in Milwaukee County that’s critical to our future. In legalese, the ballot takes 128 words to ask this: Starting with the next election of County Board Supervisors, should all their salaries be cut in half, from about $51,000 to about $24,000 with no health insurance?
The referendum is part of Act 14, a ploy by conservatives in the Legislature, County Executive Chris Abele, and the powerful downtown business interests (the GMC and MMAC) to prevent the Board from passing progressive legislation. From 2003 to 2013, I worked as an aide at the County Board – under Supervisors Roger Quindel, John Thomas, and David Bowen. I found it a great place to work. But before I retired at the end of 2013, I saw Act 14 begin to cripple the Board. County government is a living piece of American democracy. Act 14 is an affront to democracy. The Board and the Executive exercise checks and balances – oversight to keep each other honest. But Act 14 weakens the Board. When one branch is weakened, both branches are more likely to make bad decisions.
Starting in 2016, Act 14 cuts Supervisors’ terms to two years, disrupting their work with costly election campaigns twice as often as the Executive. Increased turnover on the Board will result in new Supervisors unfamiliar with their jobs or ways to cope with moves made by the Executive. Act 14 also stops their pension, severely limits their office budget, guts their staff, and takes away parts of their authority. If this referendum passes, it will slash their salary and cut off their health insurance. It applies to Milwaukee County and its Board only – no other county in the state.
What the County Board Does. County Supervisor is no cushy job. Each Supervisor has oversight over some 25 county departments that run our bus system and our airports, the zoo, four museums, the War Memorial and Marcus Center; care for our elders and our physically and mentally disabled and addicted; promote economic development, urban agriculture, and our disadvantaged businesses; construct and maintain county roads and our parks; the Sheriff’s department, our courts, the District Attorney; and more, with about 5,000 fulltime employees. Each month, Supervisors – individually, in committees, and then as an entire board – analyze dozens of issues and proposals, make dozens of financial decisions, vet dozens of decisions made by others, and find themselves in dilemmas, some in which all possible choices are painful. We-the-people can speak our minds to Supervisors and testify at the committee meetings. Our County Supervisors reflect the electorate and the values of this community. Among those values is the ability to support oneself by working. The Board fights to protect workers and to help the weakest and least fortunate among us.
The interests of citizens, both affluent and poor, of color and otherwise, have been well represented on the Board. As a result, the rights of minorities and low-income residents are often in the forefront and these groups have some power. Supervisors whose districts include the inner, less affluent areas of the county spend time helping residents and businesses build alliances to compete with the wealthy power structure that ignores or discounts them.
County Supervisors of color contribute vitally to communities of color and the county as a whole. David Bowen, for example, brings an energetic focus on injustice and the needs of our youth. Russell Stamper II carries a passion to better our poorest neighborhoods. Michael Mayo brings experience with transportation issues. The Board has unanimously adopted a measure by Khalif Rainey, requiring that contracts be preceded by research on their impact upon the county’s women, disabled, elderly, and racial and ethnic minorities. Peggy Romo West champions health care and the Kozy Community Center and is a strong voice for our Hispanic people. With humility and dedication, Willie Johnson chairs the all-important Finance Committee and represents all of us on numerous boards and committees statewide.
I respect Supervisors for the hard work we expect from them and get from them. The folks in their districts include many of our poorest. Should these Supervisors have to juggle one or more additional jobs at the same time they’re fighting to give their constituents the tools to make a living and a good life? I don’t believe so. The Board’s Accomplishments. What makes me believe Supervisors are worth $51,000 a year?
From the past 10 years, here’s a possible Top 10 List of the Board’s accomplishments, most of them over opposition from County Executive Chris Abele or Scott Walker:
1. Gave $10 million to save the War Memorial and the Art Museum’s collection.
2. Twice shot down Walker’s proposals for parking meters along Lincoln Memorial Drive.
3. Saved Pulaski and Noyes indoor pools for seniors when Walker and Abele tried to shut them down.
4. Saved bus routes when Walker tried to curtail them.
5. Funded Sup. Roger Quindel’s idea, a County Youth Sports Authority, enabling adult volunteers to provide organized training and competition for many hundreds of kids.
6. Removed the House of Correction from Sheriff Clarke, to emphasize rehabilitation.
7. Switched employees’ health insurance from a corporate provider to self insurance by the County, saving at least $37 million.
8. Became one of the first governments in the USA to adopt a Living Wage ordinance for County workers and contract employees, at $11.32 an hour.
9. Rejected Walker’s 25-year $400 million lease of St. Michael’s Hospital for mental health.
10. Enabled 500 new workers to train for and take jobs averaging $18 an hour through WRTP/Big Step.
If those aren’t enough good reasons to Vote NO, here are some more:
1. In a county of nearly a million people, both urban and suburban, Supervisor is a rigorous, multifaceted, fulltime job with responsibility for millions of our tax dollars.
2. We need both branches working smoothly and vigorously, so they can check and balance each other. This vote is part of Act 14, a law that interferes with democratic process.
3. The Legislature singled out Milwaukee unfairly, as they’ve done with residency and education.
4. Poorly paid elected positions are unaffordable by good candidates, particularly minorities, who aren’t wealthy.
5. Poorly paid elected positions will attract candidates who don’t need the money and are oriented toward wealthier constituents.
6. State assemblypersons are paid about $50,000 and Milwaukee alderpersons make $78,000. The job of Supervisor deserves a reasonably comparable salary.
7. Poor pay can tempt officials to excuse themselves for ethical lapses and corruption.
8. If we only pay our employees for part-time work, should we expect them to be fulltime workers?
9. If one or two employees do unsatisfactory work, does it help to cut everyone’s salary?
10. Overseeing department professionals who make six-figure salaries, should Supervisors be expected to work for charity wages?
Each Supervisor represents 54,000 constituents. At their current a salary of about $51,000, you could say that they’re paid about one dollar a year per constituent. Isn’t a good Supervisor worth a dollar a year to you? Or would you vote YES and buy the 50-cent discount model? After five years as a County Board aide, I made about $24,000 a year. I can’t imagine an elected official, who’s responsible to the people 24-7, getting no group insurance or pension, yet getting the same pay that I made as an aide.
When you try to contact a Supervisor, how long do you expect to wait for them, or at least an aide, to get back to you? Supervisors with fewer staff are already less able to engage with individuals and groups in their district. If this referendum passes, it will be harder for us to reach them and for them to reach us. It will open the door wide to wealthier candidates and close the door to candidates of limited means. If you or anyone in your family would ever feel a calling to run for office, would you be encouraged or discouraged to know that it paid part-time wages, offered no benefits, and you’d have to hold another job at the same time?
The Republicans say this vote will allow us to taking fulltime salaries away from part-time workers. In reality, its effect would be the opposite: relegating fulltime workers to part-time salaries. If we pay Supervisors less, we’ll get less from them and be less able to hold the Executive and other power brokers accountable. Vote NO on April 1. Turnout will be low, so your voice will be loud. Larry Hoffman recently retired after ten years as a legislative aide for the County Board. Prior to that, he was an elementary school teacher who, having earned a Ph.D., did research in education at UWM. As a devoted teacher, his pay was generally low and his hours long.