Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele was brimming with optimism and lung power when he addressed the future of Milwaukee County government in an Oct. 1, 2013 speech to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.
In one breath, he unleashed this accounting:
"A couple of years ago if anybody had said, ‘Hey in a few years the county will have a higher credit rating than anyone would guess it would have, would have a deficit that’s almost on its way out, would be on its second operating surplus with a surplus number higher than it’s been in years, would have a parks capital budget that’s bigger than it’s been in the last 10 years and is going to catch up on deferred maintenance, has a child-support service department that with less staff is hitting all-time records in the history of the department’ -- If anybody had told you that a couple years ago, people might have said, some people would have said, ‘No.’
A Public Policy Forum report in October 2013 confirmed improvements in county finances under Abele, who won election in 2011 when Scott Walker left to become governor.
But Abele’s boast about spending on major parks improvements in Milwaukee County was a new one on us.
Abele has received plaudits for putting money into long-neglected central-city parks in Milwaukee, but recently drew criticism for proposing closure of two indoor pools at parks where he would replace them with a splash pad or a skateboard park.
Has Abele set a new standard for capital improvements in parks countywide?
We started with the adopted 2013 budget, because Abele’s office told us his claim referred to that year and because, for reasons we will explain, it was the first year in which Abele had total control over capital spending. Abele’s 2014 budget proposal is awaiting action by the County Board.
First stop, the county’s capital budget book.
The book contains the official numbers on capital improvements, which in the Parks Department include things such as fixing leaky pools, building new picnic shelters, paving parkways, replacing walkways and other major work.
Going back 10 years puts you at 2004, two years into Walker’s tenure as county executive. We found four years with higher budgeted totals than 2013 -- all predating Abele.
There is one wrinkle: Under Walker, the county doubled up its borrowing for capital improvements in 2009 and 2010 -- in effect borrowing for four years, including 2011 and 2012 too. That was so it could get federal subsidies to lower its normal borrowing costs, under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.
Adjusting for that by spreading that over four years, we actually found six years in the decade with a higher parks capital budget than 2013.
Another way to look at it
When we asked Abele spokesman Brendan Conway for backup on the exec’s claim, he provided a 2013 parks capital budget figure that was more than double the amount in the budget book.
Conway said it included parks-related projects and major maintenance that is spread around the county budget but not tallied under parks capital because other departments supervise the work. For example: Road construction on a county parkway.
Abele’s not the first county executive to pull together the numbers that way. In fact, county finance officials told us it’s a legitimate alternative.
But the list itself was a bit too broad. It included, for instance, a tally for countywide sanitary sewer repairs ordered by the state.
What’s more, Conway didn’t provide any prior years for comparison.
So we asked the county official in charge of capital finance, Pamela Bryant, to use Abele’s method to generate a decade’s worth of numbers.
Bryant works for the independently elected county comptroller, Scott Manske. Before running her analysis, she conferred with Abele’s office and they came to an agreement on what to include using the broader method, Bryant told us.
Bryant developed two tables that dealt with the "double borrowing" issue in different ways.
In one table, 2007 and 2010 parks-related capital spending outpaced 2013.
In the other, there were three years in which parks-related capital spending was higher than in 2013.
It wasn’t close in two instances.
In 2011 (Walker’s last budget) and 2012, the spending was about $4 million to $7 million higher than the $14.8 million in 2013. As we mentioned, that was the first budget over which Abele had total control over capital spending due to the stimulus-related borrowing for 2012.
In addition, the 2007 budget was just a shade over Abele’s 2013 mark, though if inflation were factored in, the gap would grow.
Abele told Rotarians that Milwaukee County has a "parks capital budget that’s bigger than it’s been in the last 10 years."
By any measure, this claim misses the mark. While Abele’s 2013 budget funded parks capital at a higher level than at least six other budgets in the decade, it’s not close to the leader.
We rate his claim False.