The financial challenges facing both Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee have been documented in numerous reports by the two governments and the Wisconsin Policy Forum over the past several years. Both have grappled with sizable structural imbalances caused by a set of financial realities that are strikingly similar. Those include:
- A high reliance on shared revenue and other forms of aid from the State of Wisconsin, which have failed to keep pace with inflation and in many cases have declined in nominal terms.
- Restrictions on growth of their major form of local tax revenue – the property tax – in part because of tax levy limits imposed by the state.
- Substantial pension fund liabilities that have required increasingly steep annual tax levy allocations to address.
- Key services like police and fire (in the case of the city) and behavioral health and transit (in the case of the county) that have unique expenditure needs that often outpace both inflation and the less-than-inflationary growth of major revenue streams.
These circumstances have been in place for decades, creating increasingly imposing challenges for both governments that have already produced reductions in staffing and negative impacts on service levels. And, while recently adopted state legislation promises to greatly improve the fiscal condition of both governments by providing increased state aid and allowing for local-option sales taxes, their need to find expenditure savings and identify efficiencies still will be intense as structural operating budget challenges persist and capital improvement needs mount.
One important area of potential savings that is largely untapped for both governments is service sharing. There is at least some overlap in several functions performed by both governments, including in areas of public safety, public health, and public works, and models from across the country have shown that sharing or merging functions or programs can produce both fiscal savings and enhanced service quality.
Furthermore, the two governments are now seeking to recruit and retain talent in an historically tight labor market marked by extremely low levels of unemployment and fierce competition from the private sector. As of the summer of 2023, both governments reported overall vacancy rates in the 20% range, suggesting that collaborating on certain key functions may even be more of a human resources than a fiscal necessity.
Initiatives to share or consolidate services for some functions can be complicated by distinctions in the specific types of services provided by two governments. In the case of the city and county of Milwaukee, for example, the city provides general public health while the county is responsible for behavioral health services, and Milwaukee police officers have a range of law enforcement responsibilities related to crimes and arrests while Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputies focus mainly on highway patrols, the jail, and courts.
However, one area where there is less distinction – and where little analysis has been performed on service sharing opportunities – is the administrative or “back office” services provided by both governments to support the needs of their departments and programs. Both the city and county hire, recruit, and certify new workers; administer pension and health care benefits and personnel policies; procure commodities and services; conduct various accounting, payroll, and budgeting tasks; manage buildings, facilities, and fleets of vehicles; and administer information technology to support their respective services.
Given the fiscal challenges facing both governments, the commonality in these functions, and the increasing difficulties both are facing in recruiting and retaining high-quality staff to carry them out, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley asked the Forum to explore opportunities for sharing and consolidation of administrative services between the city and county of Milwaukee. The project was launched in March 2023.
In this initial report, we summarize our preliminary findings from a broad scan of internal services that are common to both governments. Our work was aided by an advisory group consisting of more than two dozen leaders across both governments. The advisory group met regularly during the first several months of the study to help us collect and examine data and identify functions deemed suitable for analysis by Forum staff.
As a result of these meetings and dozens of interviews with leaders from administrative functions for both governments, we recommend six functional areas for further analysis, including possible implementation steps. For a limited number of those areas, our recommendation includes exploration of a potential full merger of the entire area between the two governments, while for most others we recommend getting started toward that potential pathway with enhanced collaboration or a merger of sub-functions.