Friday, November 7, 2008

Need For A Remedy: SEWRPC Ignored Its Own Recommendations

One more thing about SEWRPC, and how it is managed when it comes to deciding which issues to tackle, and on whose behalf.

This has been on mind, as I was out of town twice in the last month, without the documents - - and wanted to interject one matter into the ongoing debate about how that agency performs.

Now it's one thing for SEWRPC to throw up its hands helplessly when critics allege institutional passivity or benign neglect by the agency and say, "no one is accepting our recommendations; there's little we can do."

This is the argument that SEWRPC and some of its defenders have offered when explaining away the agency's lack of a major regional housing study since 1975.

And while it is true that municipalities in the region did not pick up the housing ball and run with its recommendations for more affordable housing after the 1975 report, some of the responsibility for that lack of reaction actually returns full circle to SEWRPC.

And not because SEWRPC does not believe in advocacy, though that is a very subjective term, as we shall see.

SEWRPC should bear some of the responsibility because it did not follow through on the recommendations it made to itself in the 1975 housing study report.

Not a county board or city council or town manager, mind you:

SEWRPC itself.

In addition to a wide range recommendations the report made to local and state governments, there is this lengthy set of recommendations that aimed at SEWRPC itself on p. 456-457 of the final housing plan, known as "Planning Report NO. 20":

" is recommended that the Commission provide, on a continuing basis, technical assistance to enable county housing authorities and local units of government to more precisely establish the magnitude and characteristics of the existing housing need on a community and neighborhood level. The Commission should also provide technical assistance on a continuing basis as required with respect to the utilization of housing subsidy programs which are available for the abatement of the identified housing problems. Furthermore, the Commission should establish a monitoring system to determine whether housing subsidy programs are being utilized in the appropriate areas and are assisting appropriate households. It is also recommended that the Commission undertake a major reevaluation of the magnitude and characteristics of the housing need at regular intervals to determine the extent of the housing problems, the effectiveness of efforts undertaken to abate those problems, and the need to modify or adjust the recommended regional housing plan. A major reevaluation of the regional housing situation should be conducted approximately every fifth year after the publication of this report."

That's a big role SEWRPC carved out in print for itself - - technical assistance, a monitoring program, and serial studies every fifth year, which would mean right now, had SEWRPC followed its own assignments, we'd be in the middle of plan revision #6.

But as we know, the first follow-up major revision has been waiting for 33 years, and counting.

Several months ago, I asked SEWRPC Executive Director Phil Evenson what happened to that set of recommendations that the 1975 housing study made to the agency itself.

Replied Evenson:

"Jim: In response to your email inquiry of June 30, please see the attached excerpts from SEWRPC Annual Reports for the years 1975-1981. During that time, we had a rather intensive staff effort relative to housing plan implementation and potential plan updating. Indeed, we had hoped to sustain an ongoing housing planning program akin to transportation planning. Unfortunately, the national election in 1980 changed all that, we lost substantial federal funding for housing planning when the federal metropolitan planning program was eliminated, and we had to terminate our housing planning staff and the program that went with it. As to the current effort, a draft work scope is under preparation and not ready for release. Phil Evenson"

So a 1980 funding problem set in motion decades of inactivity?

Doesn't SEWRPC do grant-writing, and receive federal, state and local funding for numerous projects every year?

Note that when SEWRPC chose to begin a $1 million regional water supply sought by Waukesha, Racine and other counties in the region - - but not Milwaukee County - - it simply dunned all seven of its counties a share.

And when Milwaukee County would not pony up what was the largest of those shares - - SEWRPC wanted than a quarter-million Milwaukee County property tax bucks - - SEWRPC tapped into a little-known Milwaukee County real estate mapping committee that had a budget, pulled some strings, and got the money it wanted.

Add a funding raid to grant-writing to the sources of SEWRPC study dollars.

This is my point: When it is motivated, SEWPRC can launch a study and find its funding.

And there is little surprise that it was water-hungry Waukesha County that SEWRPC chose to serve with a budget, and a study with recommendations that called for a Lake Michigan diversion - - thus validating the assumptions of SEWRPC's guiding land use plan and massive growth in Waukesha County.

But when it came to finding the will and the means to repeat the housing study and implement even the in-house recommendations decades earlier - - an effort that had begun with a request from then Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier - - the City of Milwaukee and the region's low-income residents got the SEWRPC shoulder shrug.

This is why Milwaukee County and City will never get the commission's full attention so long as SEWRPC's structure under-represents Milwaukee's population in its governance, and overtaxes it for budgetary purposes.

And goes about its business servicing the more suburban, rural, white and upper-income Walworth, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Walworth Counties - - while not calling that "advocacy."

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