2nd Quarter 2019 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

The Forum’s recently released final installment of our five-part series of reports on Milwaukee’s local government infrastructure caps nearly three years of painstaking data collection, interviews, analysis, writing, and editing.

There’s no question the time and effort was worth it. Infrastructure financing woes deeply impact metro Milwaukee’s economy and quality of life, and they are not being adequately addressed by local and state policymakers. In our view, somebody had to paint the full picture of the imposing challenge, and we were the appropriate entity given our government finance expertise and objectivity.

Those interested in reviewing our research can turn to our full report, report brief, or video summary (all available here) or recent media coverage (available here). My purpose in this space, however, is not to discuss the content, but instead to reflect on how the Forum was able to devote such considerable resources to this meaningful work.

Whenever I’m asked how the Forum chooses its research topics, I point to three possible channels: ideas developed and deliberated by our research staff; topics or concepts that bubble up from one of our four policy committees; or an approach by a government, school district, or other outside entity. In the case of the latter, the project is carefully weighed against our stringent standards for impartiality and relevance to our overall research agenda.

Our business model demands that when we consider a project that will take more than a few months of full-time work by one or more researchers, we have to consider special funding sources. Discretionary income we raise through membership dues, events, and individual donations allows us to undertake less time-intensive projects, like our Focus and Wisconsin Taxpayer publications and budget briefs. However, we typically don’t have the capacity to take up too much of our researchers’ time on larger projects unless we secure project-specific grants or conduct the project under contract with one or more outside entities.

The infrastructure project was a special case. We knew going in that it would take multiple years and hundreds of hours of research time, but the concerns raised from our previous work analyzing City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, and MMSD budgets convinced us we needed to proceed, regardless of whether sufficient outside funding could be secured in advance.

Our challenge grew when we roughed out the project cost, which exceeded $160,000 – far more than we thought we could successfully raise in the near term. So, after discussions with our Executive and Research committees, we took a hybrid approach. We sought and obtained quick commitments from a small group of funders for about a third of that amount. We then launched the project, rolling the dice that we could secure additional grant dollars while our work proceeded, but also recognizing that use of considerable internal resources likely would be necessary.

I’m pleased to say the strategy turned out fine. About half of the project cost ended up being offset by generous grants received from a diverse mix of public and private sector sources (to whom we are very grateful) – including the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Administration (WHEDA), MMSD, the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, the Brico Fund, Fund for Lake Michigan, and Herzfeld Foundation. The remainder was handled through discretionary dollars generated from our members, contributors, and event attendees, which we were able to comfortably afford given that allocation of those resources occurred over three years.

To those corporate, institutional, governmental, and individual supporters, we offer our infrastructure series as evidence of the type of important policy research that would not get done without your generous membership dues and other support. Thank you, and we hope you feel you are getting your money’s worth.