Original article HERE.
A referendum asking voters if the salaries of Milwaukee County supervisors should be sliced nearly in half has left supervisors predicting dire consequences if the answer is “yes.”
That change in pay, several supervisors said, would force them to work the equivalent of part-time jobs, and that, in turn, would create an imbalance of power between the county’s legislative and executive branches.
The referendum is a provision of Act 14 (PDF), a law signed by Gov. Scott Walker in June. Milwaukee County residents will vote on whether to cut supervisors’ pay nearly in half and to strip them of pension and other benefits not required by law. Most of Act 14’s provisions, such as restrictions on the board’s budget and oversight, are not part of the referendum.
State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, a former Milwaukee County supervisor, drafted the legislation.
Supervisor Peggy Romo West said a “yes” vote would create a discrepancy between the hours the county executive and the supervisors spend on the job. A part-time County Board, she said, cannot provide checks and balances against a full-time county executive.
“There’s really nobody, if you will, guarding the henhouse,” Romo West said.
County Executive Chris Abele objected to that concern. He said the board worked part-time decades ago and operated efficiently. The board still would have access to its researchers, and it still would have more support staff members than any other county board in the state, Abele said.
But Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said Romo West’s concerns are legitimate. There are many examples of a full-time executive branch and a part-time legislative branch, such as the Wisconsin Legislature, he said.
The County Board used to have its own legislative and fiscal analysts. Technically it still does, but Act 14 moved those employees from under the chairperson’s oversight and to the comptroller’s office. Those researchers also are now available for Abele.
“If those analysts aren’t truly independent but are actually reporting to a different master,” McCabe said, “that could create a problem.”
Sanfelippo said those concerns are misguided. Anyone who believes the referendum is designed to snatch away the board’s power and deliver it to the executive does not understand how county government is supposed to work, he said.
The supervisors and the county executive are on the same team, Sanfelippo said, but they play different positions. The supervisors handle policy and the county executive implements those decisions.
Lately, Sanfelippo said, the teammates have not played well together.
“That’s what we were trying to create back in Milwaukee County,” he said, “that you don’t have that constant tension.”
Supervisor Pat Jursik, who shares an assistant with another supervisor, said that arrangement has forced her to restrict research into county resolutions.
Even if county voters reject the referendum, Jursik said, the board’s budget has been slashed. Under Act 14, the board’s operating budget, which covers salaries for supervisors and support staff members, will be limited to 0.4 percent of the property tax levy. In 2013, before Act 14 was passed, that change was estimated to decrease the budget, which was about $6.5 million, to about $1.2 million.
If the referendum fails, the board in 2016 would have to decide whether to proceed without assistants and have supervisors remain full-time, Jursik said, or scale back supervisors’ compensation and retain some support staff members.
“I do think that there are two sides on this,” Jursik said. “It’s very political. I think somewhere in the middle is the truth.”