Trying to sidetrack state legislation that seeks deep cuts in their pay and budget, Milwaukee County Board supervisors took matters into their own hands.
The board voted to approve a multi-pronged reform package, "meaning Board Supervisors’ salaries will be cut by 20 percent, staff will be cut by 50 percent and the Board’s budget will be cut by 50 percent," said an April 25, 2013 County Board news release that extensively quoted Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic.
So, since the measure passed on a 15-3 vote, that means salaries and the budget will be cut, right?
While Dimitrijevic said the board had "accomplished meaningful reform," Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele -- who backs a fast-moving state Assembly bill that would clip the County Board’s wings -- raised doubts about the significance of the vote.
As Abele mulls whether to veto the County Board action, we decided to take a closer look.
The state bill, backed by key Milwaukee civic and business leaders, seeks to limit the authority, role and budget of the board. Critics say the board has blocked or slowed changes to county operations that were strained by the 2002 pension scandal and other problems.
Fourteen of 18 County Board members oppose the state bill, and have decried the state legislation as meddling into local affairs that would harm checks and balances.
The state bill would trump the County Board’s action on spending. It is set for votes in the Assembly on May 8, 2013 and Senate on May 14, 2013. It was authored by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, a former member of the Milwaukee County Board. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, has expressed support for the measure.
The state bill would reduce supervisors’ pay by about 50 percent, to $24,000, and drop the board’s budget by two-thirds. It also seeks to make clear that Abele and future county executives have more control over operations. The pay cut, however, needs voter approval in a referendum that would be held in 2014.
Supervisor pay was last raised in 2001, shortly before the pension scandal that rocked county government. Pay had peaked at $52,227, but supervisors and Walker agreed to reduce it to $50,679 in 2004, where it still stands.
The board resolution
The text of the county resolution that was approved by the board states that it seeks to "reduce County Board Supervisor salaries by 20 percent, from approximately $50,679 to $40,543, and the Chairperson’s from $71,412 to $57,130, beginning with the term commencing April 18, 2016."
Any future pay increases would require a two-thirds vote of the board and be limited to the rate of inflation. Additionally, supervisors’ salaries could not exceed those of state legislators.
The resolution also says the County Board will submit a 2014 budget request that cuts spending 50 percent, including cutting the number of staff positions in half. Future budget increases would require a two-thirds vote.
So, the chairwoman has the numbers right in the County Board news release she shepherded.
But this is not a done deal, as the blunt language in the news release states.
To take effect, changes in compensation policy and County Board procedures must be enshrined in county ordinances. So, to make good on its resolution, the board would have to approve the ordinances at some future point.
The text of the resolution makes it clear that more steps remain, stating the board "hereby pledges" to reduce the salaries and "will submit" a 50 percent budget reduction. The resolution directs County Board staff to draft the necessary ordinance changes "as soon as practicable."
Bottom line, the board promised reform, in writing, putting it on the record in a way that would be difficult politically to back away from. But the measure itself did not accomplish the changes.
We asked Dimitrijevic why a resolution, not an ordinance, was put up for a vote.
She said the board wanted to make sure the changes are done correctly. That might only take a week or so, she said. If Abele signs the resolution approved by the board, or the board overrides an Abele veto of the resolution, "we’ll be ready to roll on it," she said.
Dimitrijevic said the board intends to approve the cuts even if the state law is unexpectedly derailed or slowed.
"We’re going ahead with this plan no matter what," Dimitrijevic said.
It’s worth noting that even an ordinance change is not set in stone. The board could repeal an ordinance change, just as it could decline to adopt an ordinance changing its pay even though it has pledged to do so in a resolution.
Sanfelippo cites that reality, and the board’s failure to vote on formal ordinance changes, as arguments for using state law to try to cut the pay and budget. A state law would prevent the board from changing its mind down the road, he said. He noted that drafts of his bill (AB-85) have been circulating since January 2013.
"They had time," Sanfelippo said.
A news release overseen by Dimitrijevic after 15 of 18 supervisors adopted reforms she championed said the "meaning" of the action was that "Supervisors’ salaries will be cut by 20 percent" and "the Board’s budget will be cut by 50 percent."
The claim accurately conveys the intent of the resolution, but goes too far in leaving the impression the cuts were actually adopted by the board. It leaves out the key fact that the resolutions have no binding effect on their own. On their own they don’t "accomplish" the cuts.
We rate this Half True.