3rd Quarter 2020 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

As our increasingly polarized nation gears up for one of the most consequential presidential elections in its 244-year history, it is critical to distinguish between politics and elections on the one hand, and local public services on the other.

Yes, there will always be sharp ideological disagreement on the role of government and how much government we need. But all of us – regardless of our place on the political spectrum – rely on local government services like police, fire, and public works, and we all have an interest in ensuring those services are delivered professionally and efficiently.

Whether the EMT responding to my car crash or the engineer designing my local road improvement is a Democrat or Republican does not matter. And, at the local level at least, the political affiliation of the elected officials determining the level of emergency medical services in my community or the need for local road improvements really shouldn’t matter, either.

While there are few silver linings to be found from a devastating global pandemic, I’m hoping that one will be increased recognition from citizens of all political stripes of the value of local government services. I’m also hoping for greater acknowledgement that local government service providers need both efficient operations and reasonable levels of staffing, technology, and equipment to function effectively in times like these.

Local government service levels and performance will be foremost in the minds of Forum researchers over the next couple months. We’ll follow the action closely as municipal and county governments across the state begin their 2021 budget deliberations, and we will publish detailed analyses of the city of Milwaukee, city of Madison, and Milwaukee County budgets by mid-October.

In keeping with the chaotic nature of our times, this year’s local government budget season will be different from most years. For one thing, there will be much more public focus on police budgets in light of the recent protests and on public health budgets as the fight to control the pandemic continues.

Other municipal and county services that often fall under the radar screen also should receive increased attention. Those include libraries in light of the enhanced role they may play in providing internet connectivity and educational opportunity as schools and after-school programs remain partially shuttered; and public safety dispatch as the coronavirus creates greater need for effective coordination of first response in our communities.

Of course, at the very time that citizens should be more attuned to the nature and breadth of their local government services, many municipalities and counties will face intensified fiscal challenges as revenue streams diminish from the economic downturn. Questions usually reserved for budget geeks like us – such as how much these governments should dip into reserves and whether they can and should pursue new or increased user fees – may now be of greater interest.

While there will justifiably be considerable attention in the weeks ahead devoted to spending and service levels, let’s also hope there will be greater public focus on the quality of local government services and the importance of recruiting and retaining talented and dedicated individuals to work for municipalities and counties.

From election clerks to public health nurses to front line police and fire personnel, there are thousands of local government workers across the state whose lives have been disrupted even more than the rest of us, often for little or no extra pay or recognition. Local government workers also have experienced furloughs and lay-offs like so many others.

We’ll be doing our part to highlight public sector quality with our annual Salute to Local Government awards program on November 18 (go to this link for details and registration). While this year’s version will be virtual, we have added two new pandemic-related awards and we’ll still be able to celebrate excellence in government with our video vignettes and traditional program.

We acknowledge, however, that a 90-minute awards program is not enough to recognize the efforts of local government and school district employees as they continue to log extra hours and take greater risks to protect and serve all of us. Even more important would be for our community, state, and nation to use this moment as an opportunity to separate the vitriol that marks our politics from our collective view on public sector service, and to restore the notion of such service to the respected mantle it deserves.