In early January, Milwaukee’s chief of police, Ed Flynn, announced his retirement. In the halls of the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD), few tears were shed. Instead, rank-and-file officers, city residents, seasoned prosecutors, and elected officials let out a collective sigh of ‘goodbye and good riddance.’
The hope, of course, is Flynn’s exit will bring forth a new leader: one that is less beholden to Mayor Tom Barrett, and more concerned with doing what it takes to suppress crime in Milwaukee’s troubled neighborhoods.
To the surprise of many, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission (FPC) declined to name Flynn’s right-hand man, James Harpole, interim chief. Many insiders saw this as a slap at Flynn on his way out the door.
To fill the vacancy, the FPC took applicants to fill the interim chief’s vacancy from department insiders with the rank of captain and above. Three finalists emerged, although Harpole, having seen the writing on the wall, withdrew his name from consideration. The two candidates left standing are Inspector Mike Brunson and Captain Al Morales.
The real news here is the interim chief, if he performs reasonably well, will likely become the permanent chief of police for two reasons: the FPC and community residents want a person to lead the police department that knows Milwaukee. The second reason is routinely ignored by mainstream media outlets — the City of Milwaukee’s precarious financial situation.
Under the tutelage of Barrett, the city’s debt service has risen from 10.5 percent of the annual budget to 30 percent. Milwaukee now spends $450 million a year on its debt service, an amount that surpasses the combined budgets of its fire and police departments.
Milwaukee’s financial problems began in the 1990s, when Mayor John Norquist, on advice from the city attorney’s office, signed an ordinance that combined the city’s dramatically underfunded duty disability fund with the city employees’ pension system. The end result was a raid on the pension fund to the tune of $80 million. Members of the pension system sued, and the City of Milwaukee faced a potential liability of $200 million.
Since the City of Milwaukee didn’t have a $200 million rainy day fund, city leaders and the plaintiffs reached a “Global Pension Settlement,” which enabled city hall to kick repayments to the pension system down the road in exchange for benefit considerations, such as police officers and firefighters retiring after 25 years of service, regardless of age. As a result, the City of Milwaukee has used tax dollars, as well as borrowed funds, to fulfill its short-term Global Pension Settlement obligations.
Other financial troubles stem from Barrett’s expanded use of Tax Incremental Finance Districts (TIF) as an economic development tool. TIFs reallocate money obtained from property taxes to encourage investment within the TIF district. When property values within a TIF increase, additional property tax revenues, which could be used to fund core services, are reinvested within the TIF district.
TIFs, which can span a decade or more, are supposed to be used in blighted areas. In Milwaukee, however, Barrett has established TIFs in 89 districts, including the area of Broadway and Michigan Street, the corner of 27th and Howard Avenue, and the redevelopment of office buildings on Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue. It would tough for anyone to argue these areas are blighted.
Wealthy developers then use these diverted property tax dollars to improve the values of their properties. It’s a good scam when a developer can convince the mayor that Milwaukee’s downtown is a blighted area. And, as is the case inside the political swamp, developers make campaign donations to alders and the mayor. Go figure.
In Milwaukee, the loss of property tax revenue to support TIF developments has resulted in cuts to fire and police services. Last November, Barrett supported the elimination of 28 police officer positions and proposed eliminating six firehouses. These cuts have serious consequences. In 2015, an 82-year-old woman, raped by a stranger after she exited a bus, waited three hours for a Milwaukee police response. “The woman,” according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “who has difficulty seeing, finally called the police dispatcher back and asked if she could take a shower.”
Back to the selection of the interim police chief. In all likelihood, the City of Milwaukee’s financial predicament will make it difficult for the FPC to hire a well-qualified police chief from outside Milwaukee. After all, an outsider would realize the continued cuts to the MPD’s budget would surely destine him or her to fail. Instead, the FPC and the mayor need an internal candidate they can control — a person who will not raise holy hell as Barrett continues to reduce core services to give breaks to wealthy developers.
Steve Spingola is a retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide lieutenant and cold case investigator.