Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Residents push for violence prevention, lead abatement
Deanna Branch introduced herself to the Milwaukee Common Council Monday as one of the mothers with a child who suffers from high blood lead levels.
Her 6-year-old son Aidan was diagnosed two years ago with high lead levels and lead toxicity, she told aldermen and Mayor Tom Barrett Monday evening at the public hearing on Barrett’s proposed 2020 budget. He has had to endure hospitalizations and more, she said.
“I am here not only on behalf of my son Aidan Branch, but I speak for all the mothers of children in Milwaukee when I say that we want to be lead-free,” she said. “And I will be the voice of concern until there is no more lead in the water, paint or soil.”
She was among the many speakers who advocated putting $240,000 toward the Birthing Moms pilot program, which would provide lead education kits to new mothers immediately after birth.
Over the hours-long hearing, speakers also advocated for resources for violence prevention and criticized the amount of funding that goes to the police department. Under the proposal, the police budget would remain at about 47% of all city departmental funds from the general city purpose budget.
Attendees filled the Common Council chamber, clapping in agreement with speakers over the course of more than 31⁄2 hours.
“This has probably been the most people that we have had show up to a community hearing on the budget, and I’m actually encouraged by that,” Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said afterward. “I think that we need to have people paying attention to this process. One of the reasons that I believe we’ve gotten into some of the funding ruts that we’ve gotten into is because of a lack of participation and attention.”
He also saw reflected in the public commentary a recognition of the amount of resources that go to law enforcement at all levels of government. Hamilton said it’s important to recognize that the city has contractual and statutory limitations to fund certain things. At the same time, he also said it’s true that there can be a better way to prioritize resources and collaborate.
Barrett’s 2020 proposed budget includes a drop in the number of sworn police positions from 1,864 to 1,804. The 60 officer positions would be eliminated through attrition, not layoffs.
The Milwaukee Police Association strongly opposes the proposal. Police Association President Shawn C. Lauda said at Monday’s hearing that the police cuts will lead to lost lives, longer response times and crimes that go unsolved.
“When you want to call the police and your life’s in danger, the police don’t come for an hour — that’s going to cause a problem between the community and the police,” he said.
Barrett has also proposed a hiring freeze for general city employees throughout the year and called for putting $8 million aside in 2020 — and additional funds in coming years — to ease a significant anticipated jump in the city’s annual pension contribution come 2023.
Barrett’s plan for keeping the positions and lifting the hiring freeze is tied to the sales tax proposal Milwaukee-area leaders announced Sept. 9. They are seeking permission from the state Legislature for a binding referendum to raise the county sales tax to 1.5% from 0.5%, with a portion of the revenue going to the county’s municipalities.
With the sales tax funds, Barrett also anticipated being able to add a medical unit requested by the Fire Department, repave more roads and put more into lead paint abatement and replacement of lead service lines. It’s also possible more funding could go toward violence prevention.
Last week, Ald. Milele Coggs, who chairs the powerful Finance and Personnel Committee, opened the year’s budget deliberations with an impassioned appeal to address violence in the city.
Paul Spink, AFSCME Wisconsin president, said he has deep concerns about the budget. He criticized the amount of money going to police, saying such an allocation will undermine other city services such as street repair and clean drinking water.
“It’s a budget that will result in under-staffing our libraries and our snow plows,” he said. “This budget does not properly fund interventions to address the crisis of infant mortality or support the mission of the city’s Health Department. We are choosing not to invest in our neighborhoods and our children.”
The police do valuable work but they alone cannot fix the city’s violence, prevent the crime and the address poverty, he said.
“We need leaders willing to make brave and difficult choices to solve the long-term problems that underlie this budget,” he said.
Others spoke in favor of the 414 LIFE program, including Eric Conley, chief operating officer at Froedtert Hospital. He said the hospital was proud to be one of the first to embrace the program, which is proving to be successful and is beginning to address social issues.
Danell Cross, executive director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, said north side residents see that they and their children are not valued.
“We want some investment, we want to know that you care,” she said. “Right now, we know that you don’t.”