Sunday, June 15, 2008

SEWRPC Is Still A Bad Deal For Milwaukee, Part II

Last Sunday, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sunday Crossroads section published an op-ed I wrote about the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC).

I argued that the agency was a bad deal for Milwaukee because, by law, its 21 commissioners represent seven Milwaukee-area county governments, but the City of Milwaukee, with more people than four of the seven SEWRPC counties combined) Kenosha, Walworth, Ozaukee and Washington), gets no commission seats, and thus no voice in the direction of the agency.

I called that taxation without representation, and it's a sad and true fact.

It's why SEWRPC has a suburban and exurban planning focus, and why it wrote for the state transportation department a $6.5 billion freeway rebuilding and expansion plan - - implemented in the Marquette Interchange since 2004, and scheduled soon to begin $1.9 billion in spending on I-94 south from Milwaukee to Illinois - - without dedicated dollars for new transit lines.

SEWRPC receives a big chunk of its operating budget every year from property tax payments transferred from the seven counties: Milwaukee city residents pay about half of Milwaukee County's annual tax transfer - - the largest of those paid annually by the seven counties - - yet the Pewaukee-based agency is physically and functionally isolated from the city of Milwaukee.

None of the SEWRPC senior staff have City of Milwaukee addresses or are minorities, according to agency records.

Milwaukee's urban needs and its low-income and minority residents just don't show up on SEWRPC's radar.

Another example:

In 2007, SEWRPC established an Environmental Justice Task Force to provide guidance to the agency on issues of importance to low-income and other inadequately-represented groups.

It set up the task force - - not a full-fledged SEWRPC committee - - after the agency was chastised at a 2004 federal highway hearing for ineffective outreach that excluded or discounted the participation by minority residents from regional planning.

So it took about three years, but SEWRPC finally set up something to facilitate the participation, albeit only wuth a task force, by excluded groups.

Will it be a real, functioning, partner with and inside SEWRPC, or is it more show than substance - - a sounding board, perhaps, but without actual power?

An early clue:

SEWRPC did not honor a task force request to allow it a meaningful voice in the agency's recently completed fast-tracked/no-search/no-public input hiring 'process' in which the agency named an insider as the next Executive Director.

The task force said, "hold on, slow down."

SEWRPC's executive committee - - a real committee made up of commissioners - - went ahead and made the hire.

Because that's the way SEWRPC has always hired the boss, the agency explained. It has had three executive directors since it was founded in 1960.

Bold and open are not the agency's style when it comes to leadership succession, or advice from the outside world, where citizen-taxpayers live and send in the budget.

So I argued that after being in business for 48 years, and having failed to write a housing plan for the region in 33 years (back when Gerald Ford was president) - - but recommending the construction of 120 miles of additional freeway lanes that will induce traffic, that will fuel sprawl and will be built- - it was time for Milwaukee, city or county, or both, to start fresh in the regional planning business.

That meant taking advantage of state law allowing a municipality to withdraw from an existing regional planning body and to petition the Gobernor to create a new one - - a Milwaukee-based and focused regional planning agency that redefines regionalism, and does not blow it up.

And that could put transportation, housing and other planning needs at the top of an agenda.

An urban agenda.

There are two pieces in response to my last Sunday's op-ed in the current Sunday, June 15th Crossroads.

An editorial acknowledges some of SEWRPC's short-comings, but suggests that Milwaukee removing itself from the agency would be a bad idea.

You can read the editorial here.

The paper also published a response to my op-ed signed by the seven county executives in the SEWRPC region.

Frankly, it struck me as wasteful of these elected officials' time and energy. though I agree with the headline, "Region must use planning to work for the benefit of all."

My point, exactly.

I had opined that a new planning commission focused on Milwaukee, city or county, could actually do that and strengthen regionalism, too.

I believed a new structure, patterned after what is in place in Dane County and Madison, would put Milwaukee on a par with the rest of the region.

That's because counties like Walworth, Washington, Ozaukee and much of Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha have more in common with each other - - rural land, working farms, smaller populations, relatively few minorities - - than they have with Milwaukee County and especially the City of Milwaukee and its 600,000+ residents.

The county executives, in their group op-ed, would have none of it.

Anyway: You can read what they signed, here.

Four final thoughts:

1. If there's a continuing conversation to be had on any of these issues, I'm in.

2. More people should join the discussion.

3. The seven county execs signing a joint op-ed supporting the status quo reinforces my belief that the counties support regional planning that keeps the City of Milwaukee in a secondary position, and holds back the region, too.

4. In state law, Milwaukee is referred to as a city of the first class.
At SEWRPC, Milwaukee is a second class citizen, and that's why its a bad deal for the city.


Jim Bouman said...

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel grows daily more feeble-- financially, journalistically and morally.

Their editorial writers and columnists are oriented to the suburbs, because that's where they see their only chance for survival as a newspaper. They talk about regional cooperation, but build their whole product and marketing to meet the needs of developers, sprawlmeisters and all those whose major preoccupation is escape from the City of Milwaukee.

The editorial overstates all the half-hearted and ineffectual "regionalism" of SEWRPC, and minimizes the legitimate concerns of the city.

Keep up the pressure, Jim. Your column stung them and they clearly strained to answer the persuasive argument for Milwaukee's rejection of SEWRPC's arrogance and neglect of the people and future of Milwaukee.

I read the editorial on your blog. I don't buy their paper--haven't in years. But it arrives on my front lawn most Saturday afternoons, delivered whether I want it or not. I'm sure they use the fact that they give me a free one as part of their circulation numbers scam, a way to claim me as a reader and boost the ad rates.

I give the JS another year or two, at most, as a going operation.

Anonymous said...

Jim, keep up the progressive fight! SEWRPC is a clear-cut case of taxation without representation, and it needs to be hammered home. Thanks for being a champion for Milw.

A new Milw County planning commission is the only real option. Org change at SEWRPC is impossible, given that change can't happen when org leadership doesn't want to change. Secession sounds bad, but it's the only real option.

By the way, anyone know what ever happened to the County Board effort to stop payments to SEWRPC?

James Rowen said...

It's interesting that the defenders of the status quo use language like seccession, and nuclear option - - all loaded terms - - to describe Milwaukee getting on a more equal planning footing with a commission like that which handles planning in Dane County and the Madison-area.

What SEWRPC really fears is the loss of Milwaukee County's $800,000+ plus annual property tax payment.

If the other counties like the SEWRPC structure so much, let them pay for it.