A Balancing Act: County’s online budget tool sees growing engagement by residents
Milwaukee County set a record for the number of submissions through its online platform that asked residents to show how they would balance the 2019 budget, County Executive Chris Abele announced today.
The County received more than 650 balanced budgets and hundreds of comments through ABetter414.com. The company behind the budget-balancing tool, Balancing Act, noted that this marked the highest number of budget submissions of any local government they had ever seen.
“We worked very hard this year to engage the public before introducing our 2019 recommended budget,” said Abele. “Between the platform at ABetter414.com and the five open-house sessions we held in partnership with several County Supervisors, I think we gave the public an excellent opportunity to share their priorities. But we also gave them a chance to see how difficult it is to fully fund their priorities, given our tight budget constraints.”
Submissions came from all 19 municipalities in Milwaukee County – including every ZIP code. Completed budgets were balanced with a mixture of revenue increases and cuts to County expenses, a similar mix to how the County Executive balanced the 2019 recommended budget.
Based on user comments, some of the biggest concerns for the County’s future are parks and public safety. While highly important for many residents, because most of those services are not state mandated, the funds that are dedicated for parks and public safety could quickly dry up as the County seeks to cover expenses for required services that are not fully funded by the State of Wisconsin.
“I share the concerns a lot of people have for the future of parks, public safety and other non-mandated services,” Abele said. “Without significant reforms at the state level to how counties are funded, we’re not going to be able to preserve funding for those vitally important areas. This could happen even in a few years – which is part of why it’s so critical to find state-funding solutions now.”
Although the 2019 recommended budget doesn’t include an increase to the Vehicle Registration Fee, 71 percent of submissions included some increase to the VRF, which is one of the few options the County currently has to raise revenue.
“By no means does this mean that a VRF increase is a popular idea – but this does tell me that people understand how few options we have. Opening up our revenue options and allowing us to control our own destiny are two ways the State can help secure our future,” Abele added. “I deeply appreciate everyone who took the time to engage with this online platform and tell us how they’d balance the budget. As many of them told us, it’s not easy.”
On average, users increased funding to only one category: parks maintenance. Funding for public safety, highways, health and human services, and transit saw the smallest cuts from users.
The categories that saw the greatest number of changes – either increased or decreased – were transit, cultural contributions (which includes museums and the historical society), VRF and employee benefits.
Abele presented the recommended Milwaukee County Budget to the Board of Supervisors on October 1. The Board will hold committee hearings and public meetings on the budget throughout October, before finalizing the budget in early November.