4th Quarter 2020 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

The devastating impacts wrought by the global pandemic in 2020 have been appropriately discussed and contextualized by many others in the final days of this tragic year. Instead of reflecting on that damage in my year-end message, I’ll focus instead on our response.

While the human suffering and economic devastation faced by so many in 2020 has understandably taken center stage, we also could face harmful consequences if we fail to address the weaknesses in our government structures that this deadly virus has so viciously exposed. While this is a conversation that needs to take place at all levels of government – including with regard to our international structures – I’ll stick here to government in Wisconsin and to issues that will be high on the Forum’s radar screen in 2021.

  • Public health in Milwaukee County. The state’s largest county is also the only one that relies on its municipal governments (as opposed to the county) to deliver local public health services. Consequently, the fight against COVID-19 in Milwaukee County has required extensive coordination among 11 public health departments and the county’s department of health and human services. County and municipal leaders commendably created a unified emergency operations center early in the crisis to spearhead coordination, but whether this is the most effective approach going forward merits consideration. The Forum has been tapped by county leaders to conduct such an analysis, which we will do by analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the existing framework and comparing it to those used in peer counties. We’ll also partner with the UW-Madison Population Health Institute to examine the county’s unacceptable racial disparities in health outcomes and how those might be addressed through new public health structures and strategies.
  • Access to recreation. Perhaps one of the few bright spots from the pandemic is the increased usage of public lands such as local and state parks and recreational facilities as Wisconsin residents turned to outdoor recreation as an alternative to shuttered or limited indoor activities. Policymakers may wish to take steps to sustain this trend after the public health crisis eases given the myriad benefits of exercise, outdoor activities, and conservation, but to do so they will need to consider financial challenges that have been building for years for both state and local parks and other public lands programs. Early in the year, we’ll be exploring usage trends and funding needs in public lands and how those might be addressed in upcoming state budget deliberations. We’ll also be working with local officials and community stakeholders to launch a new, comprehensive analysis of the Milwaukee County Parks’ longstanding financial challenges, which are reaching a breaking point. The study will include renewed exploration of new governance and funding structures.
  • Emergency medical services sharing and collaboration. With our recent completion of fire and EMS service sharing reports in Jefferson and La Crosse counties, the Forum has now conducted seven distinct studies in this area in the past eight years. We’ll also be releasing a similar report for Ozaukee County municipalities early in 2021 and we have launched a new, more detailed phase of work on Greater Racine fire and EMS consolidation options that will be completed by mid-year. We have learned a lot about the quality of EMS across Wisconsin, and much of it is alarming. Fire and EMS agencies statewide are struggling to recruit and retain part-time paramedics and first responders. Several should be hiring more full-time staff but they are hamstrung by levy limits and competing needs. These weaknesses have been amplified by the pandemic, with one community even having to shut down its EMS operations for a couple of days (and lean on its neighbors) because of a COVID-19 outbreak that decimated its already challenged roster. Consolidation at the municipal level has to be part of the solution, but so does greater involvement by state government. We’ll be focusing on both in the months ahead.

Again, these are just a handful of major pandemic-related projects we’ll be working on. As discussed later in this newsletter, others will include continued scrutiny of statewide K-12 education enrollment and funding trends, a new project on the technology challenges facing small businesses in Milwaukee, and the huge ridership and funding issues facing transit systems across the state.

The slogan about “never wasting a good crisis” has become a bit overused but I’ll be guilty of it here. When our lives return to some semblance of “normal,” it would be a huge blunder to fail to muster up the political cooperation and courage needed to address the pressing local government and school district challenges that have lingered for years and that have become particularly pronounced in this time of crisis. We plan to ramp up our efforts to make sure that doesn’t happen and we welcome your input and participation along the way.

Thank you for your support of the Forum, and I hope you had a very happy and safe holiday season.