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Walker finds scapegoats by firing department heads

Pool closings, failing infrastructure endemic of Exec’s priorities

Few things anger the public more in Milwaukee County than cuts in the parks system. We’ve grown accustomed to strolls on shady paths, swims on hot days and hitting the golf course when we have extra time. In short, we expect that our quality of life won’t be eroded.

Last month County Executive Scott Walker closed many pools early as a way to save a few dollars. The closings, he pointed out, were necessary to close the budget deficit. It was a budget deficit that was created when he won approval of his 0% tax levy budget that was fraught with artificially high revenue projections and underestimated expenses.

The public was outraged about the pool closings. Facing a week of 90-degree temperatures, parents were angry that their children would not be able to seek refuge from the heat in the County pools. Seniors were angry that they couldn’t get relief from ailments like arthritis because Walker closed the pools they relied on to keep their joints moving. Walker saw this as a threat to his political future and looked for someone to deflect blame to. He found his scapegoats. 

Walker fired all five of the top managers in the parks department for allegedly giving him bad advice on how to close the $2 million hole in the County budget. Walker didn't just fire them, he made their firing part of his media circus. He called the media to inform them and only after he was sure all the cameras were at the Parks department, did he fire Department heads. This assured that when they walked out with their packed boxes, the television cameras would be there to greet them. 

You should understand that it was not Parks Dept. heads that made the choice to shortchange their budget -- it was Walker. Walker was looking for a way to make good on his tax freeze pledge and after he was in, he got an unexpected civic lesson. The rampant waste he screamed about on the campaign trail wasn't there. 

Parks officials knew they would deficit and, from my column last spring, you knew also. Walker asked Parks Director Sue Baldwin how to fix the budget hole he created. Knowing that there wasn't any other way to generate $2 million more in revenue by the end of the year, she said the only way to do it was to cut services. 

But the story doesn’t end there. Walker had a gag rule in place for all of his top managers. If there was some good news that needed to be told, Walker was the one that would put out the press release and speak to the media. It would be Walker that would get the credit and department heads would have to face the cameras if there was bad news to be shared. It was a condition of employment and they knew they had to acquiesce to Walker’s demands as long as they were working for the County. 

Now they’re talking. 

Greg Youngs, the former Deputy Director of the Parks department pointed out that he’d never seen people treated this poorly in all his years with Milwaukee County.  

Larry Kenny, the former Director of Operations for the Parks department, lamented what is happening to the parks department. “I’m disappointed that he (Walker) doesn’t articulate a vision. Simplistic answers that play to the public like ‘freeze property taxes’ don’t plan for the future. Sometimes he makes a commitment but then for whatever the reason he doesn’t feel like he has to fulfill the commitment he’s made. I question that type of leadership” said Kenny. 

Walker directed parks managers to look at mass privatization of the parks department as was done by the City of Chicago. Kenny said “he (Walker) believes it’s best if as much as possible be privatized. It’s contrary to the vision of Charles Whitnall.” Whitnall is credited for being the father of our current County park system. 

Walker told parks managers that they had to offer up at least $1,000,000 in cuts to make up for an overall county budget shortfall. “He said he was looking for layoffs. When someone tells you to cut a million dollars worth of worker salaries without understanding the consequences, that’s troubling” added Kenny.  

It’s not surprising that parks managers were frustrated. They did all they were asked to do and they presented a budget to Walker that kept spending down but were then penalized for it. He put them between a rock and a hard place and then firmly placed blame on them for carrying out decisions he made. 

The question of what happens next is entirely up in the air. A new interim Parks Director has been named who has never before put together a budget. What’s worse, top managers are now gone so he has no one to turn to when it comes time to ask questions. Our County parks are losing their luster. 

Infrastructure is crumbling, pools are closing, invasive species are invading our parks and maintenance is sliding. Walker has now issued a new challenge to all elected officials in the County to sign his pledge to not increase taxes next year – as though he believes they’ve been happily raising taxes all along.  

There are consequences to being unwilling to pay for services and one of them is decreased property values. It may take a few years for property values to erode, but it will happen. People want to live and raise their families in communities with parks, playgrounds and pools. Great schools, well maintained roads and places to interact make communities attractive. When the commitment to these core services disappears, property values plummet and families with children move out. 

There is a time to do the business of the people and there’s a time for politicking. We as citizens have a responsibility to expect our elected officials will do the work, research the details, and make decisions that are in our best interest. This is what a Representative democracy is all about. When those same elected officials choose to make glib, bumper-sticker campaign promises to solve complex problems, the public has a responsibility to seek the truth.


"We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home".

Edward R. Murrow

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