Three times in 40 years — in the 1950s, in the ’70s and in the ’90s — the Township and the Borough of Princeton, New Jersey, tried unsuccessfully to merge. The two finally combined into the new Municipality of Princeton a few years ago, allowing them to cut out redundant services and save millions on policing, snow removal and trash pickup.
But the Municipality of Princeton, formed in 2013, is an exception. Consolidations have often been discussed and studied, but the mergers rarely take place. And, based on the politics of the Milwaukee County Executive race, they’re very unlikely to occur in Wisconsin any time soon.
There are 3,069 counties in the country, and many of them provide redundant services in areas such as policing, snow removal and trash pickup. Across the country, advocates of consolidation, including governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, both Republicans, say combining county and municipal governments will streamline services and save taxpayers money. But according to the National Association of Counties, cities and counties have only combined 42 times since the 19th century, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
An Illinois report released in December sparked a conversation in that state and in others. It found that living in an area with too many layers of government increases property taxes on residents (the report didn’t break out business taxes) and makes it all but impossible to remember which governmental entity governs what.
The issue is of particular signficance in Wisconsin, which has the most bloated county governments of any state in the nation. In fact 10 percent of all county-level legislators in the United States reside in the state.
While Los Angeles County has five supervisors, Dane County has 37. Milwaukee County has 17 supervisors, compared to 18 in Cook County. And, unlike Cook County, every resident of Milwaukee County also lives within the jurisdiction of a city, town or village government. No part of the county is unincorporated.
But realigning county government is a political hot potato that few leaders in the state appear willing to address. Just consider the backlash against Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele over Act 14, even though it was passed by the Legislature and the voters. That law placed a binding referendum on the county ballot asking voters if Milwaukee County supervisors should be made part-time as opposed to full-time employees.
More than 70 percent of county voters chose part-time status. Voters also approved eliminating supervisors’ pension and health benefits. The changes brought the county’s pay more in line with others in the state and made money available for services rather than bureaucrats.
Even though Act 14 didn’t merge city and county functions, it still incurred the wrath of county supervisors against Abele. They’ve piled on him in every way possible, waging what’s seemed like a permanent campaign against him in the media.
Former Milwaukee County Supervisor and now state Sen. Chris Larson is running a no-holds-barred campaign to unseat Abele on April 5, and at least some of the board’s supervisors are playing roles in Larson’s effort.
County board chair Theo Lipscomb is part of Larson's campaign, but the challenger's top board ally is former county board chair Marina Dimitrijevic, who stepped down from that position last year after realizing that her new part-time status would reduce her salary from $71,412 to $36,076, when it takes effect on April 18.
Dimitrijevic is now executive director of Wisconsin Working Families Party, which is not a party at all. Its emphasis is on an affiliated dark-money PAC that funds challenges against Democrats who are not considered liberal enough. It’s the left-wing version of the tea party: It works to knock out candidates who don’t pass an ideological litmus test or who negotiate compromises with members of the other party, as Abele has done in his efforts to improve Milwaukee’s relationship with the state’s majority Republican leadership.
Working Families has spewed hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous dollars into Larson’s effort to defeat Abele. What they say about paybacks is true.
On its website, Working Families lists a slate of candidates and vows, “We’re going to work hard to elect these champions for working families into office.”
But only a small handful of those named candidates has received any cash, and one of the group’s recipients, who’s running for school board in Racine, isn’t even listed on the slate. Since January the group has leveled nearly all of its considerable resources against Abele, while all but ignoring everyone else — and completely overlooking right-wing Republicans who face challenges in races where the outcome would make siginicant differences for progressives.
It’s no wonder that insiders see Larson’s race as a grudge match by disgruntled county board members, whose pay dropped from $50,679 to $24,051.
Larson says he’ll restore the county board to its former status and undo what he calls other Abele “power grabs.” But as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in an editorial this morning, he simply doesn’t have the power to do that.
“It would require changing the minds of Republican legislators who control the Assembly and the Senate,” the Journal Sentinel opined. “Larson was in the Legislature when those changes were approved and he could not affect them. How would he change things as county executive?”
Next in Working Families’ sites is state Sen. Lena Taylor, the only Democrat in the Legislature to vote for Act 14. Working Families is said to be lining up support for state Rep. Mandela Barnes in his likely bid to unseat Taylor.
Faced with this sort of political fallout, counties and cities in Wisconsin will likely continue to operate separately, no matter how much combining them would streamline services or benefit taxpayers.
Information included in this story came from Stateline, a news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.