In April, in the midst of the recall campaigns, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele went to Opening Day at Miller Park, where he sat between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, two men Abele says he gets along with.
Walker quipped about the shirt Abele should have worn to the game: One with arrows pointing left and right, and proclaiming "I'm with stupid."
Abele's joke warmed up the crowd at Wednesday’s Greendale Chamber of Commerce event, where he shared promising news about this year's county budget.
Last year’s 2011 budget started with a $55 million deficit and about $1 billion in long-term liabilities.
Things seem to be looking brighter for the county.
Abele said, the latest presented 2012 budget is now poised to go forward with no deficit and $1 million that will be used to pay off debt.
The budget repair bill, also known as Act 10, gave the county some flexibility in working with the budget, but he said it was still short millions of dollars needed. The bill allowed the county to have employees on the same health care plan, rather than the 20 plans the county previously had to manage. Saving also came from county's ability to track expenses for things like supplies. And, he said, those budgetary advances were made without raising taxes or giving furlough days.
“One of the most important things for me to show was that this was do-able, even when you start $55 million in the hole," Abele said. "I think about every expenditure we make as though it’s all of our money because it is."
With the help of the County Board, Abele said the county has controlled the chaos of vacations and sick days. County workers will no longer be able to accumulate sick days and see huge backdrop payouts.
With a light winter, the county was able to save money on salting and road repair and saw an increase of revenue, particularly in the zoo and the parks. The zoo has had record attendance, he said.
So far Abele says there is a surplus in revenue, but he is careful not to get too excited about it.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on June 13 that the county has a large surplus of $11.5 million, which can be used to offset the 2013 budget or help pay off county debt.
Abele admits he likes to budget for an apocalypse and to be pleasantly surprised at the end. He always assumes he's working with nothing, while keeping and improving services at the same time. Abele predicts a $28 million deficit next year, an improvement from the $55 million deficit.
“My inclination anytime I have an excess is first pay down debt," he said. "Second, restore services that have been cut before. Where we do it? There’s a bias toward a critical safety issues and anything that will increase revenue.”
Another new element in the county is the independently elected comptroller, who signs off on expenses. Before, the comptroller was appointed and reported to the county board.
"The comptroller now reports to tax payers,” Abele said. “(The comptroller) can say no to me, which is a good thing, and anyone in the office. They can say no to the supervisors and they can do that independently.”
Abele says things are moving in the right direction, but the county is still looking for ways to save and improve.
Sharing services has improved efficiency, he said. The board put out a request to the "culturals" of the county, like the Milwaukee Public Museum, War Memorial and Marcus Center, to look at their sustainability, look for organizations that do similar things and look for ways to share efficiencies.
Abele also said there has been increase in the amount that can be done toward deferred maintenance, such as bridges with safety issues and the parks.