Public Policy Forum Blog

Forum's Top Five Research Findings of 2014

The temperatures have plummeted, the NFL playoffs are almost upon us, and our credit cards are tapped from holiday shopping – that means it’s time once again to unveil the Forum ‘s top five research findings of the year. 

Last year’s list included findings on the demographics of Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools, the finances of the County’s Behavioral Health Division, the promise of consolidating fire departments in Milwaukee County’s South Shore, and the challenges of extending bus service to suburban job centers.    This year’s list comes from a completely different set of research areas.  Here’s the 2014 list in chronological order:

  1. Milwaukee County could pursue an “Oklahoma City” approach to enhancing its cultural and entertainment assets with less impact on taxpayers than occurred in Oklahoma City.  In March, we released a detailed analysis of cultural and entertainment funding strategies in other metro areas and modeled four of those approaches for Milwaukee.  Our modeling yielded several interesting findings, including our estimate that a Milwaukee County sales tax of seven-tenths of a percent for eight years would generate sufficient funds to pay the public share of a new multi-purpose arena, an expanded convention center, and several major projects for the zoo, ballet, public museum, and performing arts center, among others.  While we are by no means pushing for such a tax, we did find it noteworthy that it would be lower than the 1% sales tax approved by voters in Oklahoma City for a similar set of projects in that city.
  1. Customers of the Milwaukee County water utility would pay far less if they received their water from Wauwatosa’s water utility.  Our March report analyzing the efficacy of a transfer of the County’s small County Grounds water utility to the City of Wauwatosa found that the County’s customers collectively would have saved more than $700,000 in 2013 had they instead received water from the Wauwatosa utility. Furthermore, as part of a city utility that is regulated by the PSC, they would have greater assurance that future rate increases would be limited. These and other findings led us conclude that a utility transfer should be pursued, perhaps as part of an overall shift in public service provision on the County Grounds.
  1. The number of nonprofit organizations in the four-county Milwaukee region nearly doubled in the past 25 years.  Our July analysis of revenue trends and challenges in the region’s nonprofit sector found that from 1989 to 2011, the number of public charities increased by 183%, growing from 824 to 2,333 organizations.  In fact, there is now one nonprofit organization for every 646 residents in the region, as compared to one per 1,603 residents 25 years ago.  Our analysis found that nonprofit revenues also grew substantially but at a slower rate, meaning that the typical nonprofit in the region is smaller today and faces greater competition for philanthropic support.
  1. The City of Milwaukee likely will need to assume considerable financial risk to advance major redevelopment projects. Our September report on “what worked” in the Menomonee Valley redevelopment found that the success of several major projects was attributed largely to the ability of the City or the public-private Menomonee Valley Partners – as property owners – to expeditiously and effectively assemble project funding and address cleanup and infrastructure issues.  We noted that consequently, while City government does not relish the role of buying and owning highly challenged properties because of the financial risk it entails, it may need to do so aggressively in areas where redevelopment is a top priority.
  1. Milwaukee experienced an astonishing number of school openings, closings, and restructurings during the past 10 years.  Our December report examining the changes that have occurred to the K-12 education “system” in Milwaukee during the past decade found that 173 schools – nearly half of the 383 Milwaukee schools open in 2003-04 – closed or restructured in the following decade, while 81 new schools were established.  Such changes took place in all three educational sectors and often had little to do with their enrollment trajectory.  This finding led us to question at what point the number of school openings, closings, and restructurings might negatively affect school improvement efforts.

With 16 research reports in 2014, it was not easy to reduce our list of top findings to five.  Left off the list this year were important findings related to the application of the State’s child care quality ratings system to afterschool providers; the ingredients for success for prominent arts education initiatives in peer cities; and the prognosis for further inpatient bed reductions at the County’s Mental Health Complex. Those interested in reviewing those and other findings can access the Forum’s full list of research publications here

Rob Henken