9
January
2013

Los Angeles County Board is a Poor Comparison to the Milwaukee County Board

Thinking people across Southeastern Wisconsin are shaking their head in disbelief at the ignorance being sold as “reform” these days. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is busy turd polishing big government legislation that rookie State Legislator Joe Sanfelippo wants to drop on Milwaukee County. Sanfelippo thinks that the Milwaukee County board should be downsized and salaries of Supervisors reduced to just $15,000 per year — effectively making it impossible for any of them to continue to serve full time.

Los Angeles County is being held as the panacea. They only have 5 County Supervisors for the whole county, downsizing advocates cry. But here’s the problem — Los Angeles County is not at all like Milwaukee County. First, Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million residents. Milwaukee County has less than a million. A Los Angeles County Supervisor makes $178,789 per year. A Milwaukee County Supervisor makes about $50,000 (the same as it was over a decade ago). Each one of the Los Angeles County Supervisors represents about 2 million people. Try, just try to get them on the phone if one of their constituents calls with a problem. It’s not going to happen. In Milwaukee County, you can usually have your county supervisor call you back the same day — in person.

Financing a campaign for a seat where the incumbent represents 2 million people is ridiculously expensive. In the end, candidates who are not independently wealthy must figure out how to raise millions of dollars to run. Who do you think antes up that kind of cash? Do you seriously think for a minute that these seats will ever be able to be won by the common man with the interest only for the people he represents? The Los Angeles County board has only had one change in a board member since 1998. Effectively, Los Angeles Supervisor incumbents have a fiefdom where they can do what they want. Why would we want that system of government here?

Now why should we care? Really now, from a basic cost perspective, doesn’t it makes sense to reduce the board salaries? If you don’t care much about how government works, and can’t see past the dollar amounts being spent, then the short answer would be yes. Unfortunately that myopic approach just might pass the state legislature.

But there are other factors at play here. First, the entire legislative branch, even at current salaries is less than 1% of the County budget. That 1% gives county residents someone who can, to the best of their ability, assess projects to make sure that they are cost effective. That 1% buys someone who can advocate for issues of importance to district residents who may have otherwise been neglected.

That 1% allows people who have had expertise in an array of fields to come together to debate issues. A Supervisor who was a nurse can lend their expertise to a healthcare issue. A Supervisor who was a programmer can give their expert advice on technical matters in the county. A contractor can offer cost saving ideas for public works projects. Take away those three people and you could spend hundreds of millions of dollars that you didn’t have to.

I’m going to get specific here. In the interest of full disclosure I used to serve on the Milwaukee County Board. When I was a Supervisor we had a project come before us for the repaving of Lincoln Memorial Drive. Now I don’t recall the exact numbers, but I do remember that what was being proposed by the County Executive at the time was a simple repaving. It would have put 3 inches of asphalt over the entire roadway. For the sake of simplicity let’s say that the cost would have been 5 million. Now me and several of my colleagues looked into this. The project would have had to be repaved in another 6 years which, conveniently, was when the County Executive at the time planned to retire. We discovered that the engineers were calling the road bed “swiss cheese”. We found out that if we would spend about 8 million, we could have the road re-engineered and reconstructed and the new road would not only fix drainage problems but would last in excess of 20 years.

Now let’s do a little simple math.

The way the Exec wanted to go would have cost taxpayers $5 million divided by the 6 years it was estimated to have lasted. That is a cost of $833,333 per year to keep the road going but not fixing any structural problems.

The way the County Board wanted go (and what was eventually adopted) was a cost of $8 million divided by 20 years. That is a cost of $400,000 per year — less than half the per year cost!

There were other benefits. The new plan added much needed parking and also had several traffic slowing features which made the road safer for what is basically a parkway which many used to use as a high speed freeway. This improved the road and made it safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike.

With that one project alone, the Milwaukee County Board more than paid for itself as well as provided ongoing legislative representation for each of the 50,000 constituents that each of them represent.

But that’s not the only example over oversight and efficiency that an effective board can bring. Personally I recall sitting in a parks committee meeting. A railroad came by and needed local approval so they could access federal funds for a multi-million dollar enhancement to part of their railroad. The Parks Department was in favor of it. Simple enough right?

Not so fast.

There was a piece of land that the county had wanted to purchase from the railroad for a long time. The railroad was not using it. The railroad was not even returning calls. Why the parks department did not come out and connect the dots here, I don’t know, but I objected to us approving their grant proposal until they worked out an agreement with the Parks Department for the County to at least have a right of way to put a bike path adjacent to the land the railroad wasn’t even using. The railroad lobbyist was irate. I didn’t care. He was being paid plenty well and it was Milwaukee County residents who were getting the shaft. I asked for the item to be laid over until the railroad came back with an agreement with the parks department. That’s what a partnership is. That’s what an effective Supervisor can do.

There are many other examples of efficiencies that an effective full-time Supervisor can bring. But the point is that the public doesn’t know about these sorts of improvements. The media doesn’t publicize them because a longer lasting road isn’t a sexy issue.

Newsmen often say “if it bleeds, it leads”. Well, road improvements at lower costs don’t bleed.

Thinking people will understand that ramrodding Sanfelippo’s plan through isn’t a reform. It’s just a change. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes it isn’t. This one isn’t.

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