Monday, April 16, 2007

Observations on A New Public Policy Forum Study

The Public Policy Forum has published an interesting study about growth and wealth in the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region that is made up of Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Milwaukee Counties.

Those seven counties also make up the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.Among the study's findings is that growth and rising property values in Walworth County, fueled by an influx of Illinois residents and others looking for open land and an exurban experience, has made Walworth the richest county in the region when measured by one index - - per-capita wealth.

Though that measurement is interesting, I think it's meaning was a little overstated by Jeff Browne, the Public Policy Forum President, in his remarks to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday, 4/13. Browne said the data showed..."it's time to start paying attention to Walworth County and acknowledge that county as a key player in our region...It's not just a sleepy rural place. It's where the action is."

I knew Jeff when we both worked at the old Milwaukee Journal. He was the best editor I ever had.

And I'm not bashing the study. Far from it. It's good that the Forum is also noting that there has been dramatic growth in Milwaukee County property values, driven in part by development in Milwaukee's downtown and river districts.

But I don't agree with Browne that this one measurement shows that Walworth is where the action is or that it signals that Walworth should be elevated in political importance regionally.

It's still a small, fairly rural county, and has about the population of three Milwaukee aldermanic districts.

Nor is "action" necessarily justified in, by or for Walworth County by per-capita property wealth in the first place, as I see it.

You could argue, in fact, that the action in the region - - my definition of "action" - - should be where the per-capita wealth is not - - Racine and Milwaukee, for instance, with their higher numbers of the poor, the unemployed, aging houses, transit needs, and other challenges.

My read of the study is that it highlights why Milwaukee County should not be in a regional planning unit with Walworth County, and, for that matter, some of the other smaller counties which have so little in common with Milwaukee County other than common borders.

It's just a bad fit, with too little common ground.

Walworth has about 100,000 people, of whom more than 97% are white. And apparently, lots of wealthier people, at least measured by per-capital property wealth.

Milwaukee County has 940,000 people, of whom 66% are white, and the City of Milwaukee has about 600,000 people, of whom slightly less than half are white.

And most of the region's poorer people live in Milwaukee city and county. That's hardly a secret.

It's problematic enough that Milwaukee city and county are folded into a planning commission with Waukesha County - - counties have three seats each on the commission's board and the City of Milwaukee has none (remember, representation is by county-only), but also having small counties with virtually zero urban development, and populations, like Walworth and Ozaukee really tips the planning commission agenda far from Milwaukee's needs.

For instance, is it any surprise that the planning commission hasn't written a housing plan for the region since 1975?

Would that be perceived as a priority in Walworth County, or Waukesha County, with their top-shelf per-capita housing values?

Maybe Walworth should be paired in a planning unit with Jefferson County, and perhaps also with Waukesha or Kenosha Counties, with which there are genuine similarities in geography, land-use, population and other characteristics.

And if Dane County and the City of Madison can have their one-county planning unit, why not Milwaukee?

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