Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signs 0.4% sales tax increase

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signs 0.4% sales tax increase

By: Vanessa Swales - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley signed into law a near-doubling of the county's sales tax Thursday, the capstone of a sometimes contentious process to head off severe budget pain.

With Crowley's signature, the new county tax of 0.9%, an increase from its current 0.5% tax, is set to go into effect Jan. 1, the same day a new 2% City of Milwaukee tax goes online.

"Through collaboration, partnership, after countless, countless, countless conversations and deliberation, vigorous analysis and debate, we, Milwaukee County, accomplished a monumental moment in the history of our region," Crowley said at the Washington Park Senior Center.

Despite the success, Crowley recognized this was not the finishing line for preserving county services.

"There's critical work at hand for us," he said, saying the action will "open the door even wider to the opportunities and the possibilities to serve our residents through those departments and services" that otherwise could have seen difficult budget cuts.

Accompanying Crowley were Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, other county supervisors and heads of county departments and other local officials.

"We've got to move forward to make sure that the increased levy that we placed on people is worth it to them, that we make sure we give them the best services ... that these parks are available, that there are employment opportunities for this next generation and that we give people (the) services and the physical services that they need, to show them that the residents of Milwaukee County were worth investing in," Moore said.

Many services faced reductions and looming fiscal cliffs without the approval of the sales tax increase, including the Milwaukee County Transit System that had a projected $26 million budget deficit annually and more than half of bus routes on the chopping block.

On July 27, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted 15-3 during a full board meeting to approve the sales tax increase from the existing 0.5% to 0.9%. Approval required a two-thirds majority — or 12 of the 18 district supervisors — to be able to send it to Crowley for his signature.

The votes came after lengthy negotiations with state legislators that included Nicholson, Crowley, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee Common Council President José Pérez.

"We voted in favor of preserving and reviving our public services. We voted in favor of our transit system, our senior centers, our parks," Nicholson said.

The City of Milwaukee enacted a 2% city sales tax on July 11. Starting Jan. 1, the sales tax on purchases in the city will be 7.9%, accounting for the new city tax, the increased county tax and the existing 4% state sales tax. Elsewhere in Milwaukee County the total sales tax will be 5.9%.

For the county, the new tax is projected to rake in an extra $82.2 million in revenue, which would rise to $92 million by 2028. The county is also projected to have a $31 million surplus next year with the sales tax bump, instead of the projected deficit of $18 million prior to the county's approval.

Even with the expanded sales tax, deficits would return in 2026 with a projected $13 million gap, according to county budgeters.

The tax is set to sunset when the county has paid off its unfunded pension liabilities— or after 30 years — whichever comes first.  

Estimates indicate that the pension liability will be paid off in 15 to 20 years, according to Budget Director Joseph Lamers.

Ahead of the Thursday signing, Crowley spoke to a crowded room during a Wisconsin Policy Forum event about the impact the raised sales tax could have on Milwaukee County services during the upcoming 2024 budget season.

With the influx of money from the 0.4% increase, Crowley wants to continue to invest and maintain services and programming countywide, including parks, public safety, transit, and behavioral and mental health services.

"We also have to recognize that this is an opportunity for us to make sure that the decisions that we make now or maybe in the past do not continue to be a hindrance on our future budgets moving forward," Crowley said. "I want to make sure that my daughters, your children ... have the opportunity to benefit from Milwaukee County."

That being said, the county executive said: "We've still got a long road ahead of us ... This is going to be a very critical moment these next couple of years to see what it looks like for Milwaukee County."

Crowley has also announced four in-person town halls on the 2024 budget, which would allow residents to learn more about the process and ask questions:

Aug. 15 at 6 p.m. at Washington Square Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet St.
Aug. 21 at 6 p.m. at Kosciuszko Community Center, 2201 S. 7th St.
Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. at Brown Deer Clubhouse, 7624 N. Range Line Rd.
Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. at Franklin Saber Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin High School, 8222 S. 51 St.

Contact Vanessa Swales at 414-308-5881 or Follow her on Twitter @Vanessa_Swales.

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