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Milwaukee Leans On Federal Pandemic Funds To Bolster Police, Fire In 2022 Budget Proposal

Barrett Says State Legislature Still Not Contributing Enough Shared Revenue To City

Milwaukee city hall
Casey Eisenreich (CC-BY-NC)

The Milwaukee police, fire and health departments were spared from cuts in Mayor Tom Barrett’s proposed 2022 budget, which was bolstered by federal pandemic relief funds.

Barrett delivered his budget address to the Milwaukee Common Council Tuesday, which now has until Nov. 5 to make changes.

The speech was more upbeat than the 2021 address, when Barrett announced 120 Milwaukee police positions would be lost due to budget constraints. But he was quick to point out, without the federal funds, the city would be in dire straits.

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“We all want to do more, and, fortunately, with the American Rescue Plan (Act) funds available to us, we do have a limited opportunity to invest in employment, housing, health and safety,” Barrett said. “Unfortunately, I think we all recognize that the ARPA funds will not solve our structural financial challenges.”

The budget address will likely be Barrett’s last. He was tapped last month by the Biden administration to serve as the new U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Barrett is awaiting U.S. Senate approval before leaving office.

Milwaukee’s proposed $1.7 billion budget is supported by $305.2 million in property taxes, which is up 2 percent from the last budget. If approved, the average residential property owner will pay about $33 more in taxes.

The biggest organizational change to the city being proposed for 2022 will be a creation of a new Department of Emergency Communications. The department consolidates the fire and police emergency 911 communications.

Barrett said doing so will better serve residents and remove redundancy.

“The administrative changes move forward at the same time technical improvements are added,” Barrett said.

The Milwaukee Fire Department will continue to provide emergency services in 2022, supplemented with nearly $15 million in American Rescue Plan money. The department’s emergency medical responses have been complicated recently as private ambulance companies that the department contracts with have faced financial challenges.

The Milwaukee Fire Department will subsidize the private providers and train emergency responders for the private companies in the coming year, Barrett said.

Next year, the Police Department will swear in and train 195 new police officers in three police recruit classes using ARPA funds.

Barrett said the department will continue to focus on curbing reckless driving and “the shocking increase in violence — particularly gun violence — that has emerged over the past two years.”

The city is on pace to break last year’s homicide record. As of Sept. 9, there had been 127 murders in Milwaukee.

“This budget does recognize the reality that police, alone, cannot bring violence under control,” Barrett said. “We continue to support the work of the Office of Violence Prevention in the Milwaukee Health Department. The budget also includes resources for mental health awareness and reduction of opioid overdoses.”

Barrett said the federal funds give the city a chance to take significant steps toward building a more resilient Milwaukee, but 2022 will be the calm before the storm.

“The looming challenges are ominous: our pension obligations, constrained revenue options, and state shared revenue that remains unchanged — declining in real value — over recent decades,” Barrett said, repeating a call he’s made many times on the state Legislature for more funding.

“We simply do not have the sufficient ability to address these challenges locally. We need the state Legislature to be our partner, finally, and, act on multiple fronts to give us the tools we need.”

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