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The Budget Fuse

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Mayor Tom Barrett is prepared for the fireworks. That wouldn’t be the 4th of July variety that Milwaukeeans can take in July 3 at the Lakefront, in Gordon Park on July 5, or for weeks to come as neighbor kids set off what remains from this month’s celebration. The fireworks he was talking about in a June 28 budget hearing at Riverside High School were the fiscal kind. To live up to his campaign promise of not raising the tax levy, Barrett asked departments to submit budgets that would make up for the anticipated $34 million shortfall. “We have two choices,” Barrett said. “We can cut all these services and people will scream about the services they’re losing…[or] if we accept the current allocation level, you’ll see a 50% increase in your taxes.” Them’s fighting words, and you can bet when the mayor’s budget comes out in September and people start to pay attention, there’ll be a real battle for funds. As it happened, there were roughly 12 non-city employees present Monday to give feedback at the “listening session,” where most of the audience seemed to be city administrators or assistants. Those present asked questions and aired personal gripes with the city, whether or not they were relevant to the budget crisis. Why the poor turnout? Most people likely have no idea what effect the proposed cuts would have on their daily lives… after all, to find out, you’d need to go to City Hall, make an open records request, and pay for photocopies. (For a look at the DNS budget, see the Story Hill neighborhood website, where Gretchen Schuldt has done some of the legwork for you). If you found last years’ proposed cuts unsettling, just wait til September when the mayor lays out this year’s budget. If department proposals are any indication, the mayor has a near-impossible task ahead of him. For example, a Department of Neighborhood Services budget proposes eliminating code compliance activity and getting rid of online property recording data, both of which help neighbors to hold landlords accountable when properties deteriorate. Library hours would be slashed across the board, and the prognosis was equally grim for other departments. The proposed gutting of services to maintain the tax levy would render Milwaukee unattractive to families, businesses, and others who enjoy living and working here. If Milwaukee is to be the great city the mayor spoke of in his inaugural address, we have to find more creative solutions to address the budget crisis. Or the fireworks will continue for many years.