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County panel's proposed budget would add $3.35 million to levy [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

By Steve Schultze, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Oct. 26--County supervisors Thursday endorsed a 2013 budget with a $3.35 million property tax increase, by scaling back Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele's plan to shift additional health insurance costs onto employees and launching a new employee wellness program.

The committee also unraveled a deal to enlist the Milwaukee Police Department to take over county park patrols, though it did approve a smaller city-county collaboration in which the county would pay the city to handle all emergency 911 cellphone calls.

Abele had proposed a property tax freeze for 2013, with the levy at the same roughly $275 million figure as this year's. The budget approved by the County Board finance committee would set next year's levy at $278.7 million. That's an increase of 1.2%

County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic said the budget revisions by the board's finance committee more fairly balanced program needs with taxpayers' pocketbook concerns. Killing the park patrol deal and increasing funding for paramedics should enhance public safety, she said.

Abele said, however, the committee's changes to his budget were for the worse and he'll try to veto them.

The finance committee vote on the budget was 8-1. Supervisor Jim "Luigi" Schmidt cast the only no vote, but he said he'd likely vote for the budget on final passage.

Abele's budget relied heavily on shifting health costs to county workers and cuts to the sheriff's budget as a way to avoid a shortfall in his 2013 budget.

Those employee health increases would be scaled back significantly under the committee action. The panel voted to restore $3.7 million to maintain a county contribution for employee health care flexible spending accounts of up to $1,800 a year and reduced an increase in deductible and co-payment costs.

All but $1.75 million of the cost of those changes would be offset by scaling back part of an employee pay raise, eliminating Abele's proposed $500,000 employee bonus program, killing 11 new positions Abele wanted and lowering Abele's assumptions on growth in health care costs.

"What I'm not hearing in this discussion is a voice for the taxpayers, a voice for maintaining services," Abele said. "What I'm hearing is it's like Christmas." The finance committee move to re-establish the flexible health care spending accounts would create a future hole in the county budget, Abele warned.

He also took issue with moves by the committee that targeted Abele's staff, including cutting a lobbyist and another position he wanted to add to his office and restructuring the job of economic development director so the County Board would have control over whether the county residency requirement should apply.

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That was aimed at Brian Taffora, Abele's pick as economic development chief. Supervisors have disagreed with Abele's decision to waive the residency rule for Taffora, who lives in Cedarburg, in Ozaukee County.

In other key budget changes, the committee:

Rejected Abele's plan to require part-time employees to work at least 30 hours a week to qualify for health benefits. The goal was to cut overtime, especially at the county's Mental Health Complex, by making more hours available to part-time nurses. Supervisors said the plan was poorly conceived.

Approved a $950,000 employee wellness program to start in mid-2013, primarily by taking expected savings from refinancing county pension debt at a lower rate. The plan was patterned after a similar program the City of Milwaukee has for its employees, Dimitrijevic said. Abele wanted the money used to pay down county debt.

Boosted the county subsidy for emergency medical services to Milwaukee and suburban communities by $500,000 to $2 million. That's still down significantly from the $3 million level in 2011. Abele pushed through a big cut to the paramedic subsidy for this year, as part of a more draconian set of budget fixes.

Earlier in the week, the committee rejected a plan by Abele and Mayor Tom Barrett for the county to pay the City of Milwaukee$1.2 million to patrol the lakefront and other county parks within the city. The sheriff's office would retain 27 deputy jobs that otherwise would have been cut under that scenario.

That intergovernmental cooperation deal initially also included the 911 change. The county panel on Thursday amended earlier action to kill both the park patrol and the 911 deal at Barrett's urging. The finance panel separately endorsed paying the city $463,000 a year to take on all 911 cell calls.

Tempers flared over the issue of rebuilding the long-shuttered Moody Park Pool. Abele had proposed tearing down the indoor pool structure and using $5 million earmarked for a new pool for less expensive improvements at Moody and several other central city parks.

The finance panel endorsed earmarking $2 million toward a new indoor pool at Moody Park, with the rest of the money to be authorized over the next two years.

Supervisor Willie Johnson Jr. bristled when an Abele aide said the price tag for rebuilding the pool had risen from $5 million to $9.5 million -- making the deal tougher for supervisors to embrace. Johnson said Abele had disrespected him by bringing that up just before the committee vote and with no advance warning.

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The County Board's public hearing on the budget is at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

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(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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