Monday, October 27, 2008

Why Milwaukee Needs A New Regional Planning Body: A Primer

The Milwaukee Common Council's influential committee on Steering and Rules will hold a hearing on Monday, at 1:30 p.m., in Room 301-B, to debate a resolution calling for Milwaukee County to withdraw from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

It's a long-overdue matter - - both the debate and the move - - and while some defenders of the status quo have likened such a change to the falling sky, the truth is that with existing city and county funds, technical staffs and office space at their downtown Milwaukee buildings, the city and county could re-create a dynamite planning body for urban residents that would make better use of the $840,000 in property tax dollars that the County ships to SEWRPC annually.

As things exist now, smaller rural counties like Walworth, Ozaukee, Washington, along with sprawl-addicted Waukesha County, constitute a board majority at SEWRPC without a single City of Milwaukee commissioner, and who consistently take Milwaukeeans money each year but run SEWRPC with a virtually all-white and suburban-minded staff that leaves Milwaukee interests at the curb.

Remember, SEWRPC is 100% funded with public dollars - - about $8 million annually - - but frequently operates more like a family business or private consulting firm than a public agency.

Here's something of a primer that explains SEWRPC's flaws and failures that need not be continued in the region:

Discriminatory processes and structure:

• SEWRPC does not have any voting members who are elected officials from the
City of Milwaukee. In fact, the City of Milwaukee has no representation on the
21-member SEWRPC commission, which has contributed to the disregard of
urban needs and City of Milwaukee issues, residents and potential hires.
• None of SEWRPC’s 11 core staffers (senior managers) live in the City of
• SEWRPC rejected requests of its own Environmental Justice Task Force to
conduct a diverse and inclusive search for impending vacancies in the executive
and/or assistant director positions.
• SEWRPC has no office in the City of Milwaukee where most of the region’s
people of color live.
• SEWRPC chose to move from downtown Waukesha, which at least was
accessible by transit, to a more remote location in a Pewaukee industrial park
that is not served by transit.
• SEWRPC frequently creates “advisory committees” - with significant decisionmaking
roles - that lack meaningful (or any) representation of persons of color
and persons with disabilities.
• SEWRPC has failed to adequately comply with its federal obligation to diversify
its staff. SEWRPC has 49 professional staff, only three of whom are people of
color. Not one of SEWRPC’s directors or “chief,” “senior” or “principal”
professional staff members is a person of color. Yet SEWRPC insists on
promoting from within - an action that only reinforces the segregated nature of its
• By a vote of 8-1, SEWRPC’s Environmental Justice Task Force recommended
that “every SEWRPC plan, i.e. housing, land use, water, etc. will incorporate
socio-economic impact analyses by a reputable, independent source other than
SEWRPC before the plan may be adopted...”


• SEWRPC’s transportation planning routinely approves highway improvements
that are sought, without consideration as to who bears the benefits and burdens
of highway improvements - especially in light of declining transit service.
• SEWRPC knows that transit services is being reduced and that communities of
color and low income communities are disproportionately harmed by transit cuts.
• SEWRPC rejected multiple requests to develop its 2035 Regional Transportation
Plan with elements that would seek to enforce actual implementation of its transit
recommendations. SEWRPC also refused to allow community groups
representing communities of color to participate on the 2035 transportation plan
advisory committee.
• SEWRPC recently approved the fast-tracking of a $25 million I-94 interchange to
serve a western Waukesha shopping mall at Pabst Farms, an area not served by
transit. The mall has been delayed, but rather than delay or kill the interchange -
- which is, like Pabst Farms, on prime agricultural land that SEWRPC itself had
recommended for preservation as Primary Environmental Corridor land - -
SEWRPC put the interchange on a list of approved projects and approved
accelerated construction of it.
• SEWRPC has not taken the same kinds of urgent, affirmative steps to ensure
transit expansion, nor has it utilized its authority to seek to require transit
improvements to occur concurrently with highway improvements.
• SEWRPC proposed the $6.5 billion freeway reconstruction and widening project
for Southeastern Wisconsin - - even as it knew that transit recommendations
were not being implemented and that transit service was being cut. The plan
calls for the disproportionate loss of homes, businesses and tax base in
Milwaukee County, and was opposed by a majority of the Milwaukee Common
Council and Milwaukee County Board. SEWRPC’s commission nevertheless
recommended it, and its subsequent transportation planning all assumes this
massive construction and expansion will occur.

Land use:

• SEWRPC’s land use plan “serves as a guide for growth and development in the
seven county SE Wis. Region.”
• The 2035 Regional Land Use Plan (the most recent one) simply recites
principles and concepts of the plans going back to 1966.
• The 2035 land use plan does not address the fact that many low and moderate
income working families and unemployed persons, who reside in the older urban
communities of the region, are harmed by the lack of affordable housing in the
outer suburbs of the region. The plan also does not address the racial import of
this problem.
• The 2035 land use plan does not address the harm and racial disparities caused
by the fact that new and expanding employment centers are increasingly locating
in the outer rings of the region - and access to those jobs is only available by
automobile, making them unavailable to many low income persons and persons
of color.
• The 2035 land use plan fails to adequately address or seek to remedy the
negative environmental impacts of pushing new development onto prime
farmlands and open space, or factor in the added costs of new infrastructure and
utilities such as highways, water supply and waste water treatment facilities. It
fails to address who benefits from this growth, and who is burdened by it.


• Milwaukee is the most racially segregated region in the country - with the least
diverse suburbs - and our region also suffers from a tremendous lack of
affordable workforce housing, and accessible housing.
• SEWRPC has not conducted a regional housing study since the 1970s.
• In 2004, SEWRPC's Executive Director stated, in writing, that he expected the
housing study to begin in the spring of 2005. Three and one-half years later, that
study still has not begun.
• Even though advocates repeatedly suggested that SEWRPC conduct its housing
study BEFORE moving forward on local Smart Growth plans (so that the housing
study information could be included in those plans), SEWRPC refused to do so.
• Earlier this month (Oct. 2008), SEWRPC said it didn't know when the regional
housing study would begin - because it refused to ask local governments to help
pay for the study (In contrast, SEWRPC was more than willing to get hundreds of
thousands of dollars from local goverments to support the water supply study
requested by Waukesha county communities.)

Water Supply:

• The SEWRPC water supply advisory committee had 32 members, 31 of whom
were white non-Hispanic, and none of whom was African-American.
• From the outset, the advisory committee and SEWRPC staff excluded from the
study nearly all factors related to water supply except supply and demand. In
particular, the study failed to evaluate any socioeconomic effects of diverting
Lake Michigan water to suburban communities, a particular problem given the
residential and employment segregation in this region.
• SEWRPC failed to include projected socio economic impacts, such as impacts
on the location of job growth, housing and transportation, in the study, yet
moving water across the region will have an impact on these and other matters
directly affecting low-income communities and people of color, particularly those
who live in the City of Milwaukee.
• SEWRPC failed to meaningfully evaluate who would benefit from, and who
would be burdened by, a water supply expansion, or whether there would be a
disproportionate harm to communities of color and low income communities in
the city.
• The water supply plan takes as a given the assumptions of where and to what
extent growth will occur as projected in the 2035 Regional Land Use plan, a plan
that is also quite flawed. Rather than tie growth to water availability, the study
seeks to find as much water as needed to support suburban growth.
• Despite the fact that two of the alternatives proposed by the study involve
Milwaukee’s Metro Sewerage District (MMSD) (i.e., sending “return flow” to
MMSD or sending it to the Menomonee River, for which MMSD is currently
creating a restoration plan), SEWRPC did not request MMSD’s input in the
creation of the water supply study.
• The water supply plan fails to adequately account for water quality and
ecosystem impacts that would occur with discharging large new volumes of
wastewater into tributaries of the Lake Michigan basin.

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