Thursday, July 01, 2010

One-Time Exception or New Walker Policy?

Although he appears to have been brought kicking and screaming, it looks like Scott Walker has decided to go forward with an emergency check of Milwaukee County buildings. The suggestion was first made by Milwaukee County Chairman Lee Holloway shortly after the tragedy at the O'Donnell Park parking structure last week. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this development is the apparent change in Walker policy on putting safety above cost.

When commenting on the emergency plan to check the safety of Milwaukee County buildings, Walker admitted that he didn't know what it was going to cost to pay the private contractor that he plans on using. He remarked that "public safety must come first" and that "money can be moved around to insure that safety remains a priority." It is really too bad that it took a tragedy to convert Walker to such a preventative approach.

He certainly didn't use that approach when he was warned about necessary maintenance at the courthouse. Ignoring those warnings thankfully didn't end in injury as limestone crashed down to the sidewalk. Walker also didn't apply this new safety before cost approach to Milwaukee County's Mental Health Complex. After years of cuts in funding and in staff, there is an entire menu of safety issues out there. The latest one involves an unexpected $15 million price tag for taxpayers.

If Scott Walker would have exercised a safety-above-cost approach from the beginning perhaps he wouldn't be in this current unstable situation. Right now he doesn't know what the cost will be to have a private firm come in on an emergency basis to do these building inspections. Perhaps if he wouldn't have decimated the Architectural, Engineering and Environmental Services division in the first place, we could already be confident in the county's buildings or at least in the cost to properly inspect them. It would have largely been a built-in and already budgeted cost as opposed to the current expensive guessing game with a private contractor. Consider the following and how Walker's new approach may have changed things:

  • In the 2002 budget the Architectural, Engineering Environmental Services division had 70.4 full-time equivalent positions. In the 2010 budget there were only 36.4 such positions remaining.
  • Investments in that division have gone down from $7,339,513 in 2002 to $6,703,375 in 2010.
  • Both a Milwaukee County audit in December and a Public Policy Forum analysis last October offered some brief but important commentary on the divisions' staffing issues and its impact. I wonder if these reports have anything to do with Walker's apparent nervousness about audits?

Considering his past policy and budgeting you can imagine a much different situation had he employed his new policy from the very beginning. There is no doubt that a long-term safety-before-cost approach would have provided some stability today. We would be talking about a solid public investment rather than an unknown private price tag after the fact. The only remaining question is whether the current Walker response is a one-time exception or if it is new Walker policy?

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