In the first sentence of his 2024 recommended budget, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley notes that his number one priority since taking office was “to put Milwaukee County on the path to financial sustainability.” He then proudly declares that “for the first time in decades, that goal has been achieved.”
That is quite a bold statement from the leader of a government that has been struggling with annual budget deficits in the $20 million to $60 million range for the past two decades. But our review of the budget suggests it is not hyperbole.
The recommended budget not only avoids any noticeable cuts in services and staff, but it also makes tens of millions of dollars of important investments that will foster greater budget stability in future years. Even more astounding is its recommendation to reduce property taxes by a whopping $24 million – the first property tax reduction of any kind since 2004 and the first that has exceeded even a million dollars since at least 1992.
Even the capital budget – which has replaced the county’s pension system as its most ominous financial challenge – benefits from an injection of nearly $31 million in cash financing and initiates major new projects in county parks and the Zoo. Looming on the horizon is the need to finance a new criminal courthouse, but planning for that project is initiated by setting aside $9.5 million in 2024.
This remarkable turnaround is linked primarily, of course, to the historic legislative package adopted in Madison this past summer. The new law – 2023 Wisconsin Act 12 – allowed county leaders to boost the county sales tax from 0.5% to 0.9% and provided an additional $7.6 million in state shared revenue for next year. But the county’s good fortune also stems from the determination of county leaders to largely avoid the use of federal pandemic relief aids to temporarily fill operating budget gaps over the past two years as well as their continued build-up of reserves.
In the pages that follow, we detail the sea change in Milwaukee County’s financial fortunes and what it means for county services and taxpayers. We also examine how long the county’s newfound fiscal stability might last, and where its biggest financial troubles still lie. Our hope is to provide county policymakers and the public with impartial analysis and perspective on both the potential impacts of the 2024 budget and what it may foreshadow for the future.