Wednesday, October 31, 2007

MPS budget hearing -- c'mon down!

I'm violating my very wise general policy not to blog on matters concerning Milwaukee Public Schools or the Milwaukee Board of School Directors (my employers) in order to invite everyone to speak yer mind Thursday, Nov. 1, on the proposed 16.4% school tax levy increase.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on the matter at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the central services building, 5225 W. Vliet St.

The proposed budget was released Friday, but most people didn't find out about the proposed tax hike until yesterday, when the JS ran a story about it. The School Board was scheduled to vote on it last night, but just five or six people turned out to comment on it. Ald. Michael Murphy asked that at least one more public hearing be held, and School Board members agreed.
The district's proposed levy-supported funding is up about 2.6%, but the proposed levy is up way, way because the district's state aid is dropping by about $19 million due to declining enrollment and a funding formula that equates property value to wealth (Milwaukee's property value went up, so presto, the district is rich compared to a year ago!). On top of that, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program private school tax is rising from $49 million to $54 million. That particular tax burden is a gift from the state that is only visited upon Milwaukee property taxpayers.

That's the short version of why the levy increase. The long version, with descriptions of spending proposals and how they changed since spring (when the Board adopted a preliminary budget), is here. It's item 5d, or Vd in Roman numeral terminology, on the agenda.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Taylor a hit at county budget hearing

State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) was a hit at last night's county budget hearing at Washington Park. Taylor, who is challenging County Executive Scott Walker's re-election bid, spoke about the importance of preserving transit and the parks.

Here's the video and, of course, there are more transit videos here.

More DPW follies

It's bad enough that maybe 1/3 of DPW's truck driver / operators are missing in action daily, and the city's Department of Public Works is just getting around to dealing with the problem (sick leave use started going up nine years ago -- sort of a Katrina-like response, no?)

DPW Commissioner Jeff Mantes' reaction to the City Hall foundation project, though -- "it was in a previous budget, so it's not news" -- makes one wonder what the coffee at DPW has been laced with. (Memo to Mantes: Jeff -- news is not what you, as DPW commissioner, know about what DPW is doing.)

Mantes' insistence that the project wasn't worth attention was bad enough, but his assertion that this exact project has been in the city budget for several years is somewhat ludicrous. First, the project wasn't mentioned in the 2007 budget. Second, the previous descriptions of the project are vastly different than the description contained in the 2008 proposed budget.

The 2002-11 capital improvements plan (posted with the 2006 budget) described it thusly:

City Hall Hollow Walk Replacement: Funding in the 2006–2011 Capital Improvements Plan totals $12.7 million for the replacement of the hollow sidewalks around City Hall. Due to the expected construction timeline of the City Hall Restoration Program, the walks could not be replaced until restoration of the building is nearly complete or completed. Initial funding for this project will occur in 2008. This project addresses the structural deterioration of the hollow, vaulted sidewalks around City Hall and includes funding for the necessary structural analysis, removal of the hollow walk, foundation repairs, membrane water proofing, and sidewalk and hollow walk replacement.

(In 2004 the project price tag was put at $6 million. Darned that inflation!)

In the 2008 proposed budget, even the project name is different:

City Hall Foundation and Hollow Walk Repairs: This project will commence upon completion of the City HallRestoration Project. Ongoing investigation has found significant foundation settling, particularly on the threesides of the northern half of the building. City Hall was built on a foundation of wood pilings as was common inthe late 1890s. Some of the pilings have been deteriorating, a substantial contributor to the settling that has occurred. Work to repair and underpin the existing pile caps and install monitoring wells is necessary to correct this condition. In conjunction with the foundation work, the sidewalks, hollow sidewalk areas, and the associated interior walls will be repaired and restored. The 2008 proposed capital budget includes $1.2 million to conduct a detailed evaluation to determine condition changes since the last analysis in mid-2004. Considerable project risk exists due to the large portion of the foundation that is buried and not directly observable. After work is complete, the building’s foundation is expected to perform its support function into the long-term future.

OK, the word "foundation" is in both descriptions. Guess that's what Mantes meant. Emphasis, scope and "significant" settling must not count.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Riverwest Neighborhood Network News' scoop on DPW

The Riverwest Neighborhood News Network scooped the world on the Department of Public Works' 33% absence rate for some key personnel.

"The industry benchmark would be about half of that," Budget Director Mark Nicolini said.

RNNN links to the video of the city budget hearing where the issue was discussed.

It's painful to watch if you pay property taxes, or even want your recycling picked up when it is supposed to be.

As Ald. Mike D'Amato put it, "the people only got a third of the service they bought."

"What's worse," D'Amato said, "paying twice for a service you get or paying once for a service you don't get?"

Wow. Where do we go for our DPW property tax refunds?

The 33% absence rate includes scheduled vacations, but there is indeed a problem: sick leave useage increased 3% since 1999, DPW Commissioner Jeff Mantes told the Common Council's Finance and Personnel Committee, "which does create some issues with respect to being able to fill particular jobs on a given day."

Mantes said there are as many three-day absences as single-day absences. "We've got many absences occurring in conjunction with holidays or weekends and that alone would lead us to believe there is probably some abuse of certainly a valid benefit," he said.

"Either we've got a very unhealthy work force or there's some abuse taking place," he said.

"How big a problem is it?" Ald. Michael Murphy asked.

The main issue with driver workers, he said.
That 3% sick leave increase equates to 12 worker absences every day.

"We've been running at the point this past year of not being able to fill all the jobs that are necessary," Mantes replied.

As the RNNN reports, recycling pick-ups and street sweeping are the first to get dumped when the workers don't show up.

"We look at which jobs can we, maybe, knock off on a given day that aren't necessarily as visible or critical," Mantes said.

The absence problem was so bad in the summer of 2006 that DPW had to "knock off" some work about 66% of the days, Mantes said.

Mantes promised that a revised sick leave policy would take effect in 2008, a mere nine years after sick leave use began to climb.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Doyle, the legislature and the state budget

Y'know how it's always said that watching legislation get crafted is like waching sausage getting made?

With the state budget, we didn't even get to see how gross it really was. Everything was done in secret and in the end members of both houses of the legislature voted on a massive bill they hadn't read.

All in all, it's not a very good budget for those of us living in urban areas. It passed only because it was too late to do anything but vote for it.

The budget does not include a shared revenue increase, which is essential for cities. The budget is an absolute bonanza for road-builders, but again shortchanges transit (it provides more than Gov. Doyle proposed, but that's not saying very much at all). The piddling funding levels it provides for handicapped and disabled transportation bring shame to the state. Hey, guys and gals, oil just hit $92 a barrel and we're at war over the stuff. You might try re-thinking your philosophy some day.

The budget takes school aids away from poor districts and sends them to rich ones. It does not provide a solution to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program funding mess, a state-imposed rip-off of Milwaukee homeowners that increases their property taxes for schools, but that does not provide the per-pupil student aid for private school students in the program that helps offset property taxes for other publicly-funded schools. It's a unique financial burden visited upon only the residents of Milwaukee.

The Legislature, which rejected the governor's proposal for the state to fund at least some of the Choice students, decided that giving $7 million to Milwaukee to offset the $54 million Choice tax was good enough for city taxpayers.

Whadda joke.

Judy Robson lost her job as Senate majority leader over this, and deservedly so. The Senate Dems played a long, painful game of "giveback" to the Republicans during budget negotiations that just hurt to watch. Despite repeated cave-ins, the Dems couldn't give enough away to satisfy the Republicans. It's just too bad Robson's colleagues couldn't do their gut-check before the citizens of the cities of the state of Wisconsin had this particular lead weight wrapped around their necks.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Another small transit win

The County Board's Finance Committee rejected County Executive Scott Walker's proposal to raise paratransit fares by 75 cents, from $3.25 to $4, according to County Board spokesman Harold Mester.

The committee also recommended preserving the route sections that Walker wanted to eliminate:
Route 80 south of Mitchell International Airport; Route 49 to Green Bay Ave. and Brown Deer Road; and Route 40 to a park-and-ride lot on Ryan Road.

The full County Board is holding a public hearing on the 2008 county budget next Monday, at 7 p.m. October 29 at the Washington Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet Street.

Here's another little video to remind us why transit and paratransit is important. More here.

What's good for the aldermen...

The line story in the JS today is that aldermen did not fully report the details of their campaign contributors, such as their employers and occupations, but mainly silence on the part of the paper during the years Scott Walker did the same thing over and over and over again. That story is from 2003, but Walker was pretty consistent in his omissions, except when he ran for governor.

The JS: We treat Walker differently because we can.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

We're No. 1 (in increasing income segregation)

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

The Milwaukee area's segregation by income grew faster than in any other region in the country from 1970 to 2000, according to a new Brookings Institution report.

The report says:

Geographic isolation may reduce job opportunities for the poor and lack of exposure to higher-income families may affect skill acquisition among disadvantaged youth.

And:

In addition, if neighborhoods affect the life chances of people who live in them, then inequality today could perpetuate future inequality via continued income segregation and polarization.

The study, "New Housing, Income Inequality, and Distressed Metropolitan Areas," also finds that the Milwaukee region, shamefully, ranks #1 among distressed regions in residential isolation of families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution.

Distressed regions are defined as those with little or no economic or population growth. In those areas, the report said:

When the rich want to segregate themselves from the poor, they move into new high-income
neighborhoods. Unlike in supply-constrained metropolitan areas, it is less expensive for the rich to buy new housing than to gentrify existing housing. Unlike in rapidly growing metropolitan areas, this new housing construction would not occur solely because of population growth, because there is little or no population growth in distressed areas. Unlike in the other two types of metropolitan areas, in distressed areas, market pressure for income segregation leads to new housing construction in excess of what would be expected given population growth alone. This new construction may, in turn, accelerate the decline of older urban neighborhoods.

Can anyone say "Pabst Farms"?

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has managed to delay for years a promised study on affordable housing. While saying it couldn't afford the study, SEWRPC instead has spent tens of thousands of dollars on developing a new logo and commissioning a book about itself.

Maybe it's just time for a regional planning commission that takes regional planning seriously.

Good and ugly

The quick-don't-read-it state budget is out, and its transportation component has some good and some real ugly stuff. The good: a desperately needed boost in funding for the Milwaukee County Transit System and a prohibition on freeway expansion adjacent to historic Wood National Cemetery. (The Republican take on expanding this stretch of freeway has been 'We respect our veterans so much we will hang freeway lanes in the air directly above their graves.')

The ugly: Approving expansion of North-South I-94 and the Zoo Interchange before there are budgets or studies completed or funding sources identified for either of the reconstruction projects. The Zoo Interchange studies have barely even begun.

Let's change that around just a little bit and try to imagine the state agreeing to agree to build a huge light rail project even though we don't know what it will cost, how it will be funded, or what the environmental impacts will be.

It would never happen.

These advance expansion approvals are some of the most fiscally irresponsible actions Doyle and the legislature have taken in a long time. Another transportation expenditure in the budget comes pretty damned close, though. There is a nice $182 million for starting reconstruction of North-South I-94. Isn't it nice of the legislature to commit the state to this project before telling us what the total price tag will be?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A remarkable sight

It was one of the more remarkable political moments in a while -- Milwaukee aldermen absolutely ripping Democratic state senators for abandoning city interests during budget negotiations, with Ald. Mike D'Amato calling them out by name.

That was last week. As this week gets underway, and Gov. Doyle and his Republican co-negotiators have to reveal more about their budget deal than they put in their press releases, here's betting that a lot more people will be furious.

What do you think is more likely to be included in the budget? Additional money for Milwaukee County's starving mass transit system that thousands and thousands of people rely on for basic transporation, or approval of Zoo Interchange reconstruction before even a single environmental study is done, before there is a budget, and before there is a funding source?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Can Walker walk away from this one?

Scott Walker is "irate" that a Community Corrections Center inmate was able to stay out of custody undetected long enough to shoot and kill Douglas Mitchell.

Milwaukee County residents should be irate, too, not only about the senseless loss of life, but also about the long-standing, clear evidence that much about the House of Correction, which includes the CCC, is simply broken.

There needs to be an independent look how this entire facility is staffed, funded, and functioning. Scott Walker, who presided over much of its deterioration, should not be the one to conduct the review.

And the JS, which apparently is the official newspaper of the Scott Walker re-election campaign, really needs to do a bit more than reprint his talking points.

Capper over at folkbum has done a nice job of covering House of Correction issues.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thanks for the opportunity, but are you absolutely crazy?

Hey, everybody!

You will be able to pay your Milwaukee property taxes with a credit card! Gee, golly, gosh, oh my, isn't that exciting?

And all you have to do to take advantage of this stupendous offer is cough up a 2.5% "convenience" fee! That's an extra $75 on a a $3,000 tax bill, or $150 on a $6,000 tax bill.

What is the extra convenience that the payer of the $6,000 bill gets that makes it worth twice the convenience fee? Is it legal, or should we call the vice squad?

No, thanks, City Hall. We'll pay by mail, for the price of a 41-cent stamp.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not even Google can help

OK, what is this thing besides really gross?

When we moved into this house 14 years ago, one of the first things we did was take down an old, dying apple tree that was spilling rotten fruit into the neighbor's yard. We also had to evict huge ant colonies that really liked to eat the apples. Once the tree was gone, though, they took over our garden, which was right near the tree stump. These ants would drill a tiny hole in a tomato, then hundreds of them would use the hole as a doorway into the tomato, which they would eat from the inside out. I remember picking tomatoes, which -- hollowed out be the ants -- would collapse in my hand. I would be left holding a tomato skin, and my hand would be covered with the ants that had been inside. Ick, ick, ick -- it was like something out of a horror movie.

This weekend, my husband discovered that the old apple tree stump was finally giving up the battle and could easily be broken apart and pulled out. Deeply at home in the rotted wood were these things -- lots of 'em. Gross, gross, gross, gross. Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Anyone know what it is? Besides disgusting, I mean? My Google searches haven't worked.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A partial victory

The County Board's Finance Committee voted to preserve a bunch of transit routes County Executive Scott Walker wanted to cut.

Not a total victory, not by a long shot. There are still more route cuts and rate hikes on the table.

Details on the route preservations and video of an MPS student who did an outstanding job representing her classmates and the district here.

Washington Park, Milwaukee and McCarty Park, West Allis


One park in central Milwaukee, one in a southern suburb. The pictures were taken one day apart. 'Nuff said.


Washington Park


McCarty Park


Washington Park


McCarty Park


Washington Park


McCarty Park

Transit budget hearing today

The County Board Finance Committee will hold a hearing on County Executive Scott Walker's 2008 proposed transit budget at 10 a.m. today.

Lest we forget what it's all about.



And there are 29 more transit stories here.

Of all Walker's cuts

This one is a puzzler.

County Executive Scott Walker has decided the small unit that works to keep the worst sexual offenders away from the community doesn't need the staff it has, so he cut a paralegal in his budget proposal. If his cut stands, the paralegal will go away, but the work that person does won't, so lawyers will be doing the paralegal's work and their own work and both likely will suffer as a result.

Does that make the community safer? District Attorney John Chisholm sure doesn't think so.

Story, with links to Chisholm's letters of protest, here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

DeBruin eyes higher transit fares for Waukesha County residents

Waukesha County is considering assessing Milwaukee County transit riders who dare travel west over the county line on the Brookfield Square bus route an extra 25 cents.

County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin said today she will introduce a measure that would -- should Waukesha County go ahead with the "slap Milwaukee" tax -- instruct the Milwaukee County Transit System to look at ways of doing the same to Waukesha County residents riding transit east over the county line.

Sweet.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Waukesha transit tax for Milwaukee County residents

The Waukesha County Board is considering levying a special transit tax on Milwaukee County resident who dare to ride the bus over the county line. For those unfortunate wretches, the transit fare would be an extra 25 cents.

And that's just just the fee to cross the county border. Imagine if a Milwaukee County resident wanted to get to Pabst Farms (like that's going to be possible on a bus) -- a $10 transit tax for such a tony destination?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Relax, HNTB is running WisDOT

HNTB, WisDOT's favorite contractor and a big, big Doyle campaign contributor, is running into a few problems in Minnesota. This is from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press:

Reconstruction of the Wakota Bridge, on the crucial Interstate 494 artery that spans the Mississippi River between South St. Paul and Newport, is years behind schedule and faces millions of dollars in cost overruns.

It was originally budgeted at $120 million and was expected to open next month.

But a design flaw by engineering firm HNTB caused cracking in part of the bridge, prompting an overhaul that cost about $19 million more and tacked on 14 months to the project.

Wakota is actually two bridges side by side - a westbound span and an eastbound span. The westbound span has been open for months, and must carry traffic both ways until the eastbound span is complete.

Meanwhile, MnDOT has been locked in a dispute with Lunda Construction over how much it would cost to finish it.

At one point, Lunda wanted $62 million to finish the second span - a significant increase over its original bid of $24.5 million. Lunda officials have attributed it to rising costs.

Don't you feel better now, knowing HNTB is scarfing up all the southeastern Wisconsin freeway design projects?

Down in Jacobus Park

Last Sunday was a beautiful, beautiful day.

Jacobus Park was a great place to spend it.

Scott Walker's administration, though, doesn't accommodate families that want to spend a beautiful day in September in Jacobus Park. They are welcome, as long as they don't have to go to the bathroom. The pavilion was locked on this beautiful September day.

The bathrooms in wading pool building were locked, too, much to the distress of a mother we
saw and even more to the distress of her desperate young daughter.

And then there is the pavilion itself...


These pictures were taken through the windows of the locked pavilion doors.


Peeling paint and a broken entryway. Re. the latter, can anyone say "liability"?

The county's liability generally is limited to $50,000, making it very easy to ignore potentially hazardous situations.

Yo! Scott! Letting gutters get clogged like this will end up costing a lot more than keeping them clear in the first place.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Dumb and dumber

Big box stores on the Pabst Farms site? And the state might build a freeway interchange to accommodate that?

That is not just bad public policy -- it's crazy.

The most distressing part of this whole interchange deal is the absolutely shamelessness with which WisDOT is treating its budget as a giant slush fund for road-building. When an agency just has $20 million lying around to throw at a given project, that agency is out of fiscal control.

Equally appalling is the state's disregard for its most urgent transportation needs: we can fight about what those are -- certainly shoring up the ailing Milwaukee County Transit System is one of them -- but we can probably all agree that a freeway ramp to a high-end retail center isn't one of them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Walker signaling end of the 'county' in 'County Grounds'?

Found this little tidbit in Scott Walker's 2008 budget proposal. The italics are mine. It certainly would appear that Walker is willing to at least consider the County Grounds under someone else's ownership.

County Grounds/Milwaukee Regional Medical Center Master Plan: Milwaukee County will work with other members of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC) and community leaders to determine an overall vision for the County Grounds. Milwaukee County played a critical role in planning and developing the MRMC, which is one of the premier economic engines for the region. Today, key questions have surfaced regarding the County’s role as a member of the MRMC and its overall presence on the County Grounds. The Director of Administrative Services is authorized and directed to initiate discussion with the MRMC members regarding their current planning efforts and how those impact the issues the County is facing as it determines its future on the County Grounds, and to report back to the Finance and Audit and Economic and Community Development Committees during 2008 regarding those discussions.

Scott Walker: Selling a heritage.

Quite the campaign slogan, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

But the paper kept shooting itself in the foot!

The JS is bleeding, which its top management finally acknowledged with its buyout offer for employees with seniority.

It will be interesting, when all the pink slips are counted, what the already bloated editor-to-reporter ratio will be. That paper is so top-heavy, it's a wonder that it didn't tip over long ago.

On the whole, though, it's bad news that a locally-owned newspaper is scaling back. There is so much beyond the paper's control -- changing demographics, the Internet, the Internet and the Internet.

Unfortunately, the paper did not take command of those things it could control, including customer service. Why would a representative of a newspaper tell a subscriber who called to report that he didn't get a newspaper that the paper would be "re-delivered," immediately suggesting that the subscriber is lying about the non-delivery? Yet the "re-delivery" language is standard in the JS lexicon.

And here's a story that, while totally insignificant in itself, says so much about the JS unerring aim when cutting off its own circulation: my sister dropped her subscription because she wanted the newspaper Monday through Friday and the JS insisted on delivering on the weekend, while refusing to give her the newspaper on most weekdays. She called so often she actually got on a first-name basis with one of the circulation folks Downtown, but nothing worked. She finally dropped her subscription.

A month or so ago, the JS called her. Please, the representative said, please, please let us prove we have fixed our circulation problems. Please, please, please let us give you two full weeks of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel absolutely free!

How could she turn that down? She ageed.

And delivery was perfect.

On each of the four days she got the newspaper at all.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sometimes you have to see it

How bad are County Executive Scott Walker's proposed route cuts? Take a look.

It must be a coincidence that the 31 will no longer go to the Medical Complex or to Mayfair, right?