Bruce Murphy: The High Cost of the County Board

On Monday I shared my thoughts about the size of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in an entry that provoked a lively discussion about the merits and drawbacks of downsizing the County Board from the current number of supervisors (18) to some smaller number.

At the time, I noted such a move would result in cost savings, savings that could then be redirected into shoring up Milwaukee County’s innumerable deferred maintenance projects, neglected parks, and shrinking transit system, and yesterday Bruce Murphy from Urban Milwaukee wrote about the big budget of Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors, especially in comparison to other county boards that have many more members (emphasis added).

Back in 1989 I did a feature story on Milwaukee county government. I was stunned by what I encountered. Though its 25 county supervisors drew a full-time salary, nearly half worked part-time. There simply wasn’t enough work for so many board members, so they spent much of their time on micro-managing county departments or petty squabbles with each other.

Milwaukee made a token effort to reduce the size of the board, but its 18 members are still far in excess of the average county board nationally, which has about six members. In 2006, I analyzed data from the National Association of Counties which showed that fully 10 percent of all board members in America were located in just one state: Wisconsin. No state had more total board members. Even huge states like New York and California had fewer county supervisors than Wisconsin.

But no county in this state comes close to Milwaukee in taxpayer dollars devoted to the county board. The annual budget for Racine’s county board, counting its 21 supervisors and all staff who serve the board, is $417,000. The annual budget for Dane County, with its 37 county board members and 4.75 full-time staffers, is $873,000. The annual bill for Milwaukee’s 18 supervisors and 56 staff members who serve the board: $6.5 million.

3 comments to Bruce Murphy: The High Cost of the County Board

  • Ed Heinzelman

    It is certainly time to have a rational discussion on the size and responsibilities of county government…but cost should only be part of it…if cost is the end all and be all reasoning we aren’t going to get the gov’t services we require.

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  • Ed Heinzelman

    For those of you reading this post…please read all of Mr Murphy’s blog as well and the comments that follow. Apparently, not all of Mr. Murphy’s assumptions or suppositions are correct.

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  • PJ

    Ed gives good advice; everyone should read through the entirety of Murphy’s blog. Murphy’s piece is chock full of conceptual concerns. Not least among them the furthering of a number of unhelpful paradigms that are far from universal truths:

    Duplication or Redundancy = Bad
    Smaller and Cheaper = More Efficient

    What’s missing here is the oft-repeated flip side of “restructuring” – multi-tasking and cross-training to foster leanly streamlined operations. Murphy has presented a cherry picked compendium of desired ideas for how we should conceive of a more corporate structured government. These are all wrongful directions for envisioning government operations. We have here a shallow focus viewed through a set of very potentially damaging blinders.

    If we are to have a discussion about a more effective government, one that is more responsive where citizens have some chance of involvement then let’s do it. Let’s talk about local and sustainable. Let’s talk about what people in Milwaukee County need. Let’s talk about urban planning for the long term in order to create communities that are independent and self-sufficient and not reliant upon a larger economic environment that is caustic and quite frankly despotic in nature.

    Murphy’s “part-time” assessment of board functions is ludicrous. Take that reasoning far enough and it becomes clear that Abele should be downsized as well – the county executive has no reason to operate full time either.

    Again, I reiterate that emulating Los Angeles or Cook County or New York seems absolutely nonsensical to me. Trying to learn from Portland, Arcata-Eureka, or Bennington, Vermont has some merit in my view.

    Government is of the first order in this society (at least it was historically) – it should be the template the private sector emulates and the sector with which the private sector competes. Period. Government should set the standards and conditions for what we expect from the business climate in our communities. That includes salary, pension etc.

    Murphy’s angle is off-base. While he should be commended for revealing the amount Milwaukee County spends on government, he is remiss in translating what government means in Milwaukee or elsewhere. His comparison/contrasts between local governments in Wisconsin is meaningless. For instance, he cites Racine County – Racine whose “growth” has been no more innovative or productive in its land use policies than Milwaukee. Perhaps a little worse. Where’s the correlation between its board’s budget and its piss poor ability to manage its land?

    Murphy is a good journalist but I can’t help but leave his article thinking “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” No one will get any argument from me when it comes to the idea of revamping, revitalizing, re-envisioning government. Yet, it would seem to me that there are a great many areas in this country and abroad that we could be looking at in order to assess how our government works and what we want from our government. The microcosmic focus on size isn’t useful in that regard – focusing on the merit of size isn’t meaningful without a concomitant discussion of what we do with a smaller board of supervisors. Focusing on size is meaningless without simultaneous discussions about outcome.

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