Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is not known for his interest in doing the tough job of being mayor of a large city. His dream was (is?) to be governor of Wisconsin, but the voters rejected him three times. So he’s in his consolation job where he gets to dream of having a large and expensive streetcar system that will haul upper-middle class whites around downtown Milwaukee while the rest of the city suffers.
Barrett’s latest plan for dodging responsibility for the problems of his city is to have a “public safety” half-cent local sales tax dedicated to paying for police and firefighters. To have this regressive tax, he needs the state legislature and the governor to approve it. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the tax would raise $35 million per year.
So that’s $35 million per year that Barrett wouldn’t have to spend on public safety but could spend on other “priorities.” After all, money is fungible, so the more Barrett puts on other taxes and fees, the more he has in his regular budget to spend on other items, like subsidizing the ridership and construction of his streetcar.
Barrett’s sales tax would be in addition to the city’s $20 wheel tax, the garbage fee, the snow removal fee, and the amount the city skims off the top from the water utility.
This is also hardly the only sales tax proposal for Milwaukeeans. At the county level, there have been special sales tax proposals for everything from running the parks to transit to even funding the arts. Milwaukee politicians and the liberal establishment are quite inventive in figuring out needs for special sales tax collections.
But Barrett’s complaint that he needs a new revenue source to fund public safety would probably have more credibility if he actually showed a previous concern about crime in Milwaukee. Yes, Barrett does show up for holy pictures after another child is killed, says this must not happen again, and then is driven away by his bodyguard leaving the crime-infested neighborhoods behind.
But Barrett has never criticized the judges of Milwaukee County for letting the criminals back onto the streets after they’ve been caught. That’s if they’re caught, considering Barrett’s police chief still has a “no chase” policy. Nor has Barrett criticized Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm for his sentencing recommendations which actually have a priority of reducing the number of people in jail rather than protecting the public safety.
Instead, Barrett and Police Chief Ed Flynn have tried to deflect from their poor response to crime by accusing the state legislature of not doing enough about gun crimes, when Flynn himself said he doesn’t pursue “paper prosecutions” of straw buyers.
Barrett’s complaint about the lack of resources might also have some merit if he wasn’t taking prime downtown real estate off the tax rolls through the use of a TIF district to fund his new streetcar system. When he created the scheme, Barrett was warned he would be taking money away from needed public services. Now he wants state government to either bail him out or take the blame for his bad choices.
The state legislature and Governor Scott Walker probably erred too much on the side of caution when it exempted police and firefighters from Act 10 although, as Ohio showed, the state government had good reason. To that extent, we sympathize with Barrett’s predicament. But until Barrett actually shows an interest in dealing with the problems of his city, especially the crime problem, the mayor shouldn’t be taken seriously when he’s asking the state legislature to do his governing work for him.