Joining Milwaukee’s largest governments through shared services

By Anne Chapman

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the City of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee County all confront a common challenge. They are squeezed by both revenue and expenditure constraints — forces like stagnant state aids, limited tax-base growth, health care and pension costs, and growing technology and infrastructure needs.

The burden of these fiscal forces on MPS is particularly acute. The district must meet not only the educational needs of its students, but their health, safety, family, and employment needs as well. Moreover, MPS must meet these demands in an environment of intense competition with other school operators.

This reality, along with a call for creative approaches to complex problems like poverty, crime, and racial inequities, begs the question: What tools and strategies could help Greater Milwaukee’s largest local governments reconcile these competing forces?

Our latest research addresses this question through the lens of intergovernmental cooperation, and service sharing specifically. We find that opportunities exist for greater service sharing among MPS, the City, and the County. The parties should start smart small, however, and recognize that higher-quality and more efficient services — as opposed to substantial cost savings — should be the primary objective. The report explores the potential for new or expanded service sharing opportunities between MPS and either the City or County in six major functional areas:

  • Procurement
  • Human resources
  • Information technology
  • School nursing and public health nursing
  • Mental health services
  • Parks and recreation

We find that the parks and recreation function lends itself especially well to service sharing between MPS and Milwaukee County, particularly with regard to facility maintenance. The report illustrates this potential with a case study that examines shared mowing services in the Humboldt Park area.

The report also identifies a number of barriers to service sharing. For a variety of reasons, local governments are not as coordinated as many believe they should be. To address these barriers, we also recommend the following:

  • Align internal and cross-jurisdictional practices in data collection, storage, and sharing. For example, the three governments should improve their ability to break down operational costs to enable effective financial analysis of alternative service models.
  • Align the timing of major initiatives, investments, and planning processes. The report reveals a number of resource-intensive projects initiated by the three governments that could have benefited from more coordinated data sharing and planning.
  • Start with small-scale, low-risk, and low-cost service sharing arrangements. All three governments could build toward high-yield service consolidations by starting with small projects with clear benefits, such as joint purchasing or in-kind exchange of goods, services, and facilities.
  • Include service sharing as part of a joint legislative agenda. The three governments could coordinate their government relations resources to advocate for State actions that fund, reward, and induce local governments to establish new or expanded service sharing arrangements.
  • Establish a formal joint advisory body devoted to shared services between MPS, the City, and the County that could structurally integrate intergovernmental cooperation and service sharing as a standard approach to policy and practice.

MPS, the City, and the County are continually called upon to deliver more with less. As a strategy to address this burden, intergovernmental service sharing is not a panacea. Upfront costs can be prohibitive, and shorter-term benefits like better communication, higher quality, and enhanced trust can be difficult to quantify. But there are opportunities to use it as a means of fostering greater efficiency and building a climate in which these governments view themselves as jointly accountable to the same constituency.

We hope this research helps inform Milwaukee’s three largest governments and their constituents in deciding how, where, and whether service sharing and intergovernmental cooperation fit as strategies to overcome mutual challenges, respond to their constituents’ demands, and help address Greater Milwaukee’s most pressing needs.