Monday, July 28, 2008

On Regional Issues, Your Two Cents Worth Can Double This Tuesday

By sheer coincidence, a couple of meetings in Milwaukee on Tuesday, July 29th, will provide people with two opportunities to hear debate about, and to participate in, key issues that are bubbling below the surface.

Media still abhor meetings. Assignment editors never understood, or cared to acknowledge, that government meetings have news value because it is at the meetings, particularly the smaller, dare I say, wonky sessions, where important nuts-and-bolts work is aired, and solutions get framed and launched.

When I was a reporter and assistant metropolitan editor at the old Milwaukee Journal, the rule was "don't send me any meeting stories."

Senior editors preferred we'd cover the controversy that would break out when final decisions were taken, though readers would have been better served if we'd covered more early-state meetings and issues from the beginning - - at the committee or subcommittee level, even though the agendas seemed boring.

Anyway: enough of that. Here's what's up on the 29th:

The Common Council's Public Works Committee, at 10:30 a.m. in City Hall Room 301-B, will take up several resolutions regarding a possible Lake Michigan water sale to New Berlin.

And later that day, an under-covered public body called the Environmental Justice Task Force, a creation of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, will meet at 4:00 p.m., at HeartLove Place, Inc., 3229 N. Martin Luther King, Jr, Drive, in Milwaukee.

The task force meetings, which began last year, are rotated throughout the SEWRPC seven-county region; this one is in Milwaukee, easing the opportunity for media coverage.

The task force was established after years of complaints that SEWRPC did not encourage participation in its decision-making by low-income and other under-represented groups and minorities.

The task force is not a full-fledged committee, mind you, the kind that performs studies, has consultants hired for it, and makes regional recommendations that can turn into significant action, such as the committee that produced the $6.5 billion freeway plan.

Or SEWRPC's water supply study committee, which is close to finishing a consultant-heavy, three-year report that is sure to help speed Lake Michigan diversions to several sprawling communities relatively far from Lake Michigan.

The makeup of the water supply committee, with an all-Caucasian, 32-person membership - - some of whom represent major industries, but none who represent the region's low-income populations - - is an example of why SEWRPC was forced by federal funding authorities and pressured by local civil rights and transit activists to make an institutional effort to include those excluded groups.

At the task force meeting on Tuesday afternoon, SEWRPC will present information about a study it says it is about to launch, following a 33-year hiatus: a regional look at, and recommendations about, housing issues, particularly the lack of affordable housing in its seven-county region and the disproportionate concentration of low-income housing in the City of Milwaukee.

The task force is still feeling its way, having been created by SEWRPC, staffed by SEWRPC, and chaired by a designated SEWRPC commissioner.

The task force did request several months ago that SEWRPC not proceed with its completely-internal, no-advertising/no-search appointment of a new Executive Director, effective in 2009.

The task force members, charged to bring an excluded perspective to an agency that has but one minority employee among its professional staff of 42, wanted a role in the hiring process; SEWRPC refused the request and promoted the current Deputy Director into the top position, so the task force got a taste of the SEWRPC's preference for top-down/closed-off management.

The daunting task before the task force is to significantly open the agency to new ideas, perspectives and production.

If SEWRPC runs the decades-delayed housing study in its standard fashion, expect the task force and outside groups to press for a broader, deeper housing study framework, work plan and goals.

Affordable housing is one of those background, under-covered but critical regional issues also likely to come up at the water sale meeting Tuesday morning at City Hall.

New Berlin wants to buy Milwaukee water for a portion of the suburban community of 38,000 where there could be substantial growth, by New Berlin's accounting - - a possible 5,668 new jobs and 1,119 new units of housing, New Berlin data show.

A reliable supply of clean, fresh Milwaukee water will be a boon to that part of New Berlin, even if only half the new housing is built and half the projected jobs materialize.

Yet New Berlin now has but 80 units of affordable housing, and, again, according to New Berlin records, nearly all that housing is for seniors, not low-income families or singles - - the very people who might be attracted to some of those new, water-assisted jobs.

The problem is that there is no direct bus service to New Berlin's Industrial Park from Milwaukee (setting aside the issue of affordable housing availability, cost and access, too).

There was such a bus line, but it ended in 2004, and the free-fall in county bus ridership and service since is a well-known story.

What's available now is a cross-town Milwaukee County Transit System bus ride on line #10 from Milwaukee to Brookfield Square mall, then transfer to a Wisconsin Coach Line chartered bus to the Industrial Park, where many businesses are clustered.

The best round-trip fare is $6.70 daily, the travel time round-trip is around two hours from Milwaukee's central city, and longer from the downtown, or the south side.

So some Milwaukee aldermen believe the water sale should more explicitly spell out reciprocal actions by New Berlin when it comes to affordable housing, transit, or other issues key to employment in Milwaukee - - what is also known as economic justice.

Draft agreements up for discussion by the council committee have New Berlin and Milwaukee committing to an annual meeting to discuss employment matters, and a one-time payment of $1.5 million from New Berlin at the front end of the planned, 20-year water sale, in addition to wholesale water sales amounting to about $1 million in the first year.

For the city, the revenue assists the utility's budget and saves each existing customers a few dollars a year.

The one-time payment is a big check, and some aldermen may have a hard time suggesting that a different amount, based on broader parameters and formulas that define and monetize the real value and relationship of water to development, should be considered instead.

If the one-time payment were framed as an annual transfer to Milwaukee of $75,000, when the potential value of New Berlin's housing tax base could grow by $181,000,000 (using 2000 census data pegging a median-priced New Berlin home at $162,000), and additional commercial and industrial property to house and pay 5,668 new workers - - well, then, the relative worth of $1.5 million begins to diminish.

The discussions at the Common Council on Tuesday, and SEWRPC's task force meeting later in the day, offer a window into matters that have great significance for groups in Milwaukee and the region - - groups that don't get a seat at the table when big issues are defined and discussed more privately by the Milwaukee-7, or out at SEWRPC's Pewaukee offices, where there are no transit connections for the public, and no electronic recording of meetings for the public's review.

But both meetings Tuesday come with interesting agendas and this important twist: Unlike at many SEWRPC meetings, where the public can only sit and watch, people coming to the task force meeting can speak!

Likewise, the Common Council committee meeting is a hearing, so the public can be heard there, too.

So: Attention all interested parties, and assignment editors, too: pencil these meetings on your calendars, then come on down.

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