Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Op-Ed In The Freeman About Regionalism

The Freeman generously allowed me op-ed space in its edition today to raise some of the regionalism issues I've discussed on this blog.

Here is the text: [Update: I need to correct or amplify two points. First: Where I reference "core staff" at SEWRPC, the correct term is "management staff," meaning the eleven senior positions only. This was a misunderstanding on my part of SEWRPC terminology. Secondly, where I say that the Milwaukee County Board and Common Council voted against new freeway lanes, I needed to say more precisely that those votes were against adding new in the City of Milwaukee only]


Milwaukee gets second-class treatment from SEWRPC

Despite public funding, agency fails to represent its population base


(James Rowen has written for newspapers and served as a senior mayoral staffer in Madison and Milwaukee. His blog can be found at

Milwaukee County and its largest jurisdiction, the city of Milwaukee, should withdraw from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and create a new organization to better serve a big city.

And while we’re talking about reforms to SEWRPC, a healthy dose of sunlight on its spending and decision-making would help taxpayers across its seven-county region better assess SEWRPC’s performance – not just for Milwaukee, but your town and wallet, too.

First, some numbers (rounded-off):

Using 2007 official estimates, Milwaukee County’s 951,000 residents total 47.5 percent of the region’s population of 2,003,000.

But because each SEWRPC county has three seats on its 21-member board, Milwaukee County has only 14 percent (one-seventh) of the board seats.

It gets worse.

The city of Milwaukee, with 603,000 residents, gets none of the SEWRPC board seats because of the county-only appointment procedure.

That’s the situation even though Milwaukee’s city population exceeds each of all six non-Milwaukee County SEWRPC counties – ranging from Waukesha County’s 379,300 people to Walworth County’s 85,600.

And even more discriminatory:

City of Milwaukee taxpayers transferred $396,000 in property tax dollars to SEWRPC for its current operating budget, while Walworth, Washington, Ozaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties paid between $145,400 to $196,000.

Beginning to see the picture?

Suppose this were Waukesha’s situation. Would that be OK with you, in the name of regionalism?

(In fact, Waukesha County’s contribution to SEWRPC this year of $669,000 was exceeded only by Milwaukee County’s $834,000. Since Waukesha County gets the same number of SEWRPC seats – three – as the less-populated, lesser-paying counties, Waukesha County taxpayers might ask whether SEWRPC is a good deal for them, too.)

For the city of Milwaukee, this is disenfranchised governance, and taxation without representation – circumstances made more unacceptable because no senior, so-called “core staffer” at SEWRPC is a city of Milwaukee resident, or is a minority individual, though most of the region’s minorities live in Milwaukee, where minorities now constitute the majority.

The frequent absence of minorities on SEWRPC’s advisory committees, where much of the agency’s policy development takes place, enhances the belief that SEWRPC has a pro-suburban tilt.

Examples of that suburban orientation:

SEWRPC spent nearly $1 million studying and endorsing adding 120 miles of new freeway lanes in the region at the loss of millions of dollars in Milwaukee taxable property. The plan was opposed by majorities at the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board.

SEWRPC is helping with hurried approvals for a $25 million Interstate 94 interchange to a proposed shopping mall at Pabst Farms in western Waukesha County – even as a far, far less expensive bus line bringing Milwaukee workers to jobs in Waukesha County was eliminated.

SEWRPC has failed since 1975 to write a much-promised regional study about affordable housing. Yet it has spent millions on operations and studies since 1975, including nearly $1 million on the freeway plan, and close to another $1 million on a separate three-year study, now nearly complete, that will likely recommend Lake Michigan water diversions for suburban communities.

Bottom line: Milwaukee’s issues and relationship at SEWRPC have second-class status.

SEWRPC has a budget this year of $7,280,000 made up 100 percent of public dollars, but often behaves less like a public agency, and more like a private business, according to records and interviews.

For example, it selected current SEWRPC Deputy Director Ken Yunker to be executive director beginning in 2009, though did not conduct a search or other public outreach.

SEWRPC bought its current (City of) Pewaukee office building headquarters in 2001 without equivalent consideration of other properties, and agreed to pay $20,000 to Waukesha County for departing early from leased space in the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum.

SEWRPC pays for public relations services rather than rely on in-house personnel, though it has not yet implemented one proposal from the PR firm: changing the agency name from Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission to Regional Planning Commission of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Conclusion: Though a governmental agency, SEWRPC is tucked away from the population centers of its region, spending public money with little accountability, citizen awareness or taxpayer participation.

The creation of a new urban regional planning commission would be good for Milwaukee; the removal of Milwaukee County’s big annual tax payment might put the brakes on new car spending for staff and some consultants, and bring about other belt-tightening.

A new commission, perhaps with additional jurisdictions, could team up with SEWRPC. That would redefine and expand regional cooperation and produce better, more inclusive results.

Planning can and should be energetic, proactive and trendsetting. It should welcome fresh ideas and formats – especially in these challenging times – and make new approaches work for the most people possible.

As constituted and managed, SEWRPC fails that test.


BillSell said...

SEWRPC shows signs of aging. It is becoming that typical tired institution that is interested only in its own survivability.

Change might come from a move by the City to stop paying for SEWRPC. Perhaps the change would be a severing, or a new accountability arrangement, elected advisors, an organization that recognizes the population it serves.

Today, Milwaukee County has three seats on the Commission. One is vacant. Supervisor Hollway is reported to be often absent. And William Drew - icon or dinosaur, as you wish.

County Executive Scott Walker must like what he sees when he evaluates SEWRPC, but then we know where his core interests lie.

James Rowen said...

County DPW director George Torres filled the vacancy.