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Out Of Service: Milwaukee Budget Cuts Hit Bus Lines -- And Keep Residents From Jobs

First Posted: 04/05/11 09:15 AM ET Updated: 06/05/11 06:12 AM ET

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- Peggy Schulz was fed up. In March, after being unemployed for nearly two years, she performed an experiment: She went to a job-search website, limited the search to the Milwaukee area and typed in a simple term: "bus line."

The results displayed what had long been plaguing her. Job posting after job posting featured similar caveats: "this is not on a bus line," "need reliable transportation not on bus line," "positions are NOT on a bus line," "our client that is not located on a bus line is interested in having you work ..."

"Here it was in black and white," she later recalled with a bitter laugh. "It's been very frustrating to look through the want ads, look online, think about places I could work and realize, 'Nope, can't get there on the bus.'"

Schulz is 53. She has years of experience as a legal secretary. But she does not own a car.

Over the last decade, as Milwaukee County has inflicted relentless cuts to public transit, she has watched her primary means of transportation decay. After she was laid off in June 2009, a pattern emerged: She'd find what seemed like the perfect job opportunity, only to discover that bus service cuts had rendered it inaccessible.

Working people like Schulz bear the strain of a crisis that has struck municipalities nationwide. As revenues fall and expenses balloon in the wake of the economic downturn, local officials have cut essential services in a frenzied attempt to balance budgets. Communities have closed libraries and schools. Governments have laid off workers and imposed deep pay cuts to those who remain. Some of the nation's statistically most dangerous cities have axed significant portions of their police forces.

Many local officials are pushing an inevitable reckoning further into the future as they delay certain payments. Here in Milwaukee, though, policymakers have been unusually diligent. They have funded pension benefits -- which eventually have to be funded -- almost fully. But with limited dollars, putting money behind those promises has forced the local government not to fund other things, prompting the type of cuts that may loom on other municipalities' horizons. Milwaukee County's day of reckoning, to a large extent, has already arrived.

The pain has spread over a range of departments. Since 2001, the public workforce has shrunk by nearly a third, as security officers have been laid off and nurses, frustrated by anemic compensation, have quit. After years of limited funding, the parks system now needs repairs that would exceed $200 million. Bus service has been reduced by a fifth in the last decade, preventing Milwaukeeans from accessing tens of thousands of potential jobs.

The financial crisis and economic downturn put millions of Americans out of work. Now, those same forces are making the job search even more difficult by weakening a vital link between workers and workplaces -- public transportation. Milwaukee has reached a point at which cuts, necessitated by a weak economy, make the local economy even weaker.

"We're going to start bleeding red ink," county executive Marvin Pratt said while sitting at a heavy wooden table in his stately office on the third floor of the county courthouse. "If you're talking about getting people to jobs and creating jobs, we have to maintain that transit system. We have to make it better."


Not long ago, the future seemed brighter. Buoyed by the surging stock market and the tight labor dynamics of the late 1990s, Milwaukee County entered the millennium flush. It seemed prosperous days would last -- or, at least, that's what local policymakers were banking on.

Milwaukee County, a metropolitan community of 950,000 on the coast of Lake Michigan, was busy adorning itself with symbols of its success. Miller Park, home of the Brewers baseball team, opened in the spring of 2001. A new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, featuring a pair of sail-like wings on top, opened that same year, immediately becoming an international icon of contemporary architecture.

And transit worked. The American Public Transportation Association, a national advocacy group, bestowed its Outstanding Achievement Award on Milwaukee County transit in 1999. Buses carried residents not only throughout the downtown area but also between the city and the suburbs, traversing the entire county and beyond.

"Milwaukee was really coming alive," said Mike Kostiuk, 58. After living in a suburb for two decades, he moved back to the city in 2000, looking forward to taking advantage of the bus system.

And the county government decided to share the wealth. During two sessions, in late 2000 and early 2001, the county Board of Supervisors approved a hike to pension benefits for public workers. The package included an increase in the pension multiplier, which is used to determine the percentage of final average salary that an employee, upon retirement, gets as an annual pension payment. The deal applied to all categories of county employees, including the elected officials who had approved it.

"They rolled out the retirement package to us, which far exceeded anything we had proposed," said Richard Abelson, executive director of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public sector union that represents more than two-thirds of county workers here. "It was a bad deal. It was a bad deal for taxpayers. It was a bad deal for union members. The impact it would have on the budget in the future was dramatic."

But excluding special lump-sum payments, retirees' pensions are not particularly rich. In 2009, the average annual pension payout was less than $19,000, according to county records.

Rather, the pension fund has been victim to the same economic forces that are eroding municipal finances nationwide. When the financial crisis struck, these relatively modest benefits suddenly required an outsized contribution from taxpayers -- money that the government otherwise would spend on things like public transportation.

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