Legislative effort to expand county executive's powers dies

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A CAPITOL push to dramatically increase the powers of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, and allow local government leaders to switch to biennial budgets, is now opposed by other county and local officials.

As a result, although the bill making those changes recently got a public hearing it will die when the Legislature adjourns next month.

A Legislative Council summary of the bill said it would allow local government leaders to switch to two-year budgets, like state government.

BUT the summary also said most of the bill focused on strengthening Abele's powers - at the expense of Milwaukee County supervisors, who have often clashed with him on spending and policy issues.

Had the bill became law, for example, Abele alone would:

• Control property - including parking areas - on county-owned land.

• Control county purchases. It would also double - from $25,000 to $50,000 - the estimated cost of a county project that requires acceptance of the lowest bid.

• Name the corporation counsel, who would report only to Abele, subject to the majority vote of supervisors. It would also deny supervisors any control over Abele's interim appointments.

• Set the pay of other Milwaukee County officials.

THE original version of the bill would have also prohibited Milwaukee County supervisors from changing the number of aides, or their salaries, in Abele's office.

It would also have put a cap on what Milwaukee County's budget could spend on supervisors.

The bill's opponents include Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser, Dane and Outagamie county supervisors, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs associations, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County.

"This legislation transfers decision-making authority away from the County Board of Supervisors and hands it over without oversight to the county executive," said Anne Golden, president of the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County.

"In addition, it grants the county executive unlimited powers for many financial decisions, also without input or oversight," Golden said.

THE BILL was pushed by a new group, County Leaders for Modernization, that Abele helped form.

In a statement, Abele's chief of staff, Raisa Koltun, explained why he wants the changes:

"The county executive ran for elected office because he wanted to make Milwaukee County strong. To achieve that goal, the county board and county executive must work in partnership to solve our greatest problems.

"For decades, a partnership has been difficult to achieve due to lack of clarity between the roles of each branch of government.

"This has led to disagreements over who controls what and who has the power to make what decisions, instead of where we should focus our attention - how we build a strong county.

"The bill . was solely intended to provide that clarity, using other counties and state government as models.

Even though the bill will soon die, Koltun added, Abele "believes that he and the county board must find common ground."

REPUBLICAN Sen. Van Wanggaard, of Racine, and Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee, sponsored the changes in the Senate.

Wanggaard aide Scott Kelly said the senator sponsored the bill after being told it was backed by the statewide group of county executives and county administrators.

But Kreuser, a former Assembly Democratic leader, said last week he withdrew his support for the bill after it was "changed dramatically a number of times."

"I had met with a group of county executives last year and offered early input on possible language for a bill that would update statutory language for county executive duties," Kreuser said.

But, Kreuser added, "This bill in no way reflects my input."

Josh Wescott, chief of staff to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, said the Dane County Board of Supervisors "establishes legislative policy" and decided to oppose the bill pushed by Abele.

OUTAGAMIE County Executive Tom Nelson said he had worked with Abele on the bill. But Outagamie County supervisors oppose it.

"After consultation with our board chair, I've proposed some changes," Nelson said last week.

No tax dollars or public funds from Milwaukee or Outagamie counties were spent lobbying the bill, officials said.

Another veteran county official, Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, said he "played no part" in the bill.

Harris declined further comment because, "Debate on the bill could damage the relationship with my [county] board."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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