Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was critical of Milwaukee’s spending priorities this week as he weighed in on legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to raise the county’s sales tax.
“I think many of us have concerns with some of the spending that’s already going on in the city, whether or not we can afford to have a subsidized trolley,” Vos, R-Rochester, said in an interview on Facebook with TMJ4’s Charles Benson.
Vos was referencing the Milwaukee streetcar, dubbed The Hop, which will mark a year in operation on Nov. 2.
Mayor Tom Barrett champions the streetcar as an economic development tool, saying in May as he announced his plan to extend the route that he believes the city’s neighborhoods can be stronger if they can be part of the “economic renaissance that is occurring in the heart of our city right now.”
Vos’ comments come in the midst of deliberations over next year’s city budget —including Barrett’s proposal to cut 60 police officer positions through attrition — and as Milwaukee-area leaders are lobbying state legislators to allow a binding referendum on raising the county sales tax to 1.5% from 0.5%. Portions of the revenue would be dedicated to property tax relief and the county’s municipalities.
“I think that makes a lot of us say, well maybe your priorities aren’t in line if you think the most important thing for your city is a streetcar to nowhere versus having police officers on the street, knowing that we have guns that are on the street, knowing that we have crime that is impacting an awful lot of families,” Vos told Benson.
Vos said he respects that the city has budget problems and is willing to discuss those but that Barrett needs to convincingly make the case that the city is spending wisely.
In proposing his budget, Barrett cited as driving factors a significant anticipated jump in the city’s pension contribution coupled with state-imposed limits on methods for raising revenue, rising costs of providing services and flat shared revenue payments from the state.
Under his plan, the police budget would remain at about 47% of all city departmental funds from the general city purpose budget. The total proposed budget is $298.3 million.
Police Chief Alfonso Morales and the Milwaukee Police Association have warned of consequences of making such a cut. Morales has said it would take the Police Department to the lowest sworn level in two decades and could result in the department ending a shift in a police district.
Barrett ties the ability to keep the police positions to the proposal to raise the county’s sales tax. He has also said the funding would allow the city to lift a hiring freeze, add a medical unit requested by the Fire Department, repave more roads, and put more into lead paint abatement and replacement of lead service lines.
Asked by Benson whether a city should have some options to generate additional revenue, Vos said he had supported that in the past.
Vos said he supported legislation from 2015 that would allow municipalities and counties to levy a 0.5% sales tax to help pay for their roads. Voters would have to approve the tax increase in a referendum and the higher taxes would be in effect for four years.
The measure was approved unanimously by the Assembly Transportation Committee but died before getting to the Assembly floor for a vote there.
Citing that legislation, Vos said he is in favor of “some form of that idea” but that it has to be targeted.
“It has to make sure it’s really being used for economic development, not just to subsidize what he wants to do in the city,” he said, adding that he doesn’t support the idea that “the taxpayers as a whole in the county are going to pay for lead lateral replacements for only a few people.”
The property tax element of the sales tax proposal could potentially draw more Republicans, he said.
Vos said he met with Barrett on Oct. 9 and has asked him to speak with a group of Assembly Republican members.
Barrett’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday morning.
Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley contributed to this story.
Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.