Saturday, May 16, 2009

SEWRPC Needs To Do A Lot More

I posted news Friday that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission will, in fact, add what is called a socio-economic analysis to its draft regional water study.

The realists among you will ask, given water's relationship to things like development, employment, housing, transportation and land-use: Isn't that Planning 101 at an agency funded entirely by public tax dollars? Why wasn't it an integral part of a study by a regional planning commission from the beginning?

There could have been a broader study when it began in late 2005, but the core group of water utility and public works managers who wielded substantial influence on the advisory committee weren't looking for that kind of study.

The advisory committee had plenty of SEWRPC regulars - - without any representation from low-income organizations ( the home builders, and Miller Brewing, and We Energy had their reps), and without a single non-Caucasian representative among 33 appointees - - so the narrowly-focused study committee went on their way for three years, at a cost of about $1 million.

As long as the study conformed to SEWRPC's existing master land-use plan - - and look at the loss of ag and open space to highways and subdivisions that has taken place with that plan in place - - SEWRPC was satisfied with the effort. 

One member, a long-time water and planning expert who was on the committee representing the non-partisan and moderate Public Policy Forum, resigned after being blasted by SEWRPC staff for having had the temerity - - without consulting the agency - - to publicly suggest there be a broader focus and framework in the region about water policy planning.

Nor were there initiatives from SEWRPC senior staffers or their paid consultants about including, perhaps even featuring, a socio-economic analysis in the water supply study.

The prevailing attitude at the advisory committee meetings was that the study was all about economic and structural factors - - costs and benefits, supply and demand - - thus leaving little doubt that the final recommendation would call for diversion of Lake Michigan water through the City of Milwaukee Water Works to Waukesha communities.

The lead consultant was the firm of Ruekert & Mielke - - also hired by the City of New Berlin to write its Lake Michigan diversion application - - further cementing the belief that Lake Michigan diversions would be among the study's eventual recommendations.

Which is how the draft turned out - - and now a consultant - - Ruekert & Mielke? Another firm? Who? - - must somehow shoehorn in a socio-economic analysis amidst completed charts, chapters, and scientific data.

Will it be a quickie appendix, or a do-over?

I'm not even sure how it can be done at this late date. 

Isn't it like expending a large amount of consultant dollars and years of a committee and agency's time studying, say, the grid system economics of adding a major new coal-fired power plant to a regional system, finishing the report, and recommending its construction - - and then deciding to add back a look at an array of development, jobs, health and air quality issues?

All in all, the water supply study is a questionable and incomplete planning effort, and an object lesson in why SEWRPC doesn't well serve the needs of many of the region's residents and the lands on which they live and work.

And why there needs to be major change, not mere cosmetics or tinkering, in the agency structure, leadership, output and overall definition.

Q. Still: what has begun to turn the tide a bit at SEWRPC, as seen in its last-minute agreement to indeed add a socio-economic analysis to the water study?

A. Grassroots political pressure, and legal action.

So let's take a look at that.

In 2007, following a contentious federal certification public hearing in 2004, SEWRPC finally established an Environmental Justice Task Force to ensure more formal participation from low-income and minority groups.

The certification gives SEWRPC the right to approve certain federal transportation spending in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Walworth Counties; it gives SEWRPC power and prestige, and the certification, renewed every four years, provides an opening for public comment.

The 2004 hearing was so long and caustic that the SEWRPC and the feds tried, unsuccessfully, to substitute quiet, one-on-one statements to officials by aggrieved citizens instead of an open microphone at the 2008 review last fall.

More about that in a minute.

The task force, once established, and grasping quickly why it had been set up, began to push for the inclusion of socio-economic analyses, by outside contractors, in all SEWRPC studies, beginning with the water study.

After balking initially, SEWRPC leadership agreed.

No doubt because it knew if it kept saying "no," legal action was coming, and it would hard to explain why it had created an environmental justice outreach arm, but then wouldn't take the task force advice.

Further driving change inside SEWRPC: two federal civil rights complaints - - still pending.

These complaints were filed in 2008 with federal agencies over long-standing allegations of discriminatory hiring (only a handful of minorities in its planning, engineering and management ranks), committee appointments (such as the water advisory committee's membership) and planning activities ( such as SEWRPC's advocacy for a $25 million rural Interstate highway interchange to a proposed - - and still-delayed shopping mall located amidst stalled subdivisions on open land in Western Waukesha County called Pabst Farms).

The complaints could lead to penalties, and orders for remedial actions, and could help explain why the 2008 federal certification has not been completed.

Federal officials tell me that the review should be made public by the end of May.

We'll see.

Furthermore, the City of Milwaukee Common Council approved last year a resolution asking the legislature to reconfigure SEWRPC's structure because the city has no representation on the Commission's 21-member board.

Milwaukee County's Board of Supervisors passed a separate resolution asking the state to audit SEWRPC's performance; both the city and county are unhappy that SEWRPC gets a big chunk of Milwaukee city and county property tax dollars annually (about $840,000, or more than a third of its operating budget), but gets relatively small benefit from at what is essentially a suburban/exurban agency. 

I still believe that Milwaukee and its people suffer every day they are confined in this insular, hide-bound (founded in the 1960's, its only two previous executive directors still work there as consultants) regional agency, and have made that argument on this blog and in the Journal Sentinel.

State legislation is needed to establish a new, urban-focused planning agency that would represent Milwaukee, and other areas with urban populations and needs.

And relevant.

Milwaukee and other urban legislators: What are you waiting for?

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