Voters in Racine County will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote for their chosen candidates. Once the winners are announced, those elected will need to tackle issues that are complex and somewhat daunting.
And by no means should what I am about to write be taken as an endorsement of any candidate. I have never been in the practice of endorsements and I will not start now. I am, however, submitting to you my 23 years of experience as a journalist having covered numerous communities in Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
LEARN MORE: Voter’s guide
Over the course of my career, I have seen communities thrive and fail.
Those that fail have government officials that become embroiled in petty arguments. Egos dominate over purpose-driven decision-making that seeks to solve problems. Elected officials get in their own way with name-calling, and social media posturing and to be blunt: they play politics at the expense of doing the right thing for their residents.
No matter who gets sworn into office, here’s what you need to know.
Understand the problem, follow the money
One of the main problems I see with how communities address issues is that we don’t take the time to fully understand problems. We just want our version of the fix but we fail to see the shortcomings of how policies drive those problems.
A prime example of this is rooted in how money flows – and doesn’t flow – from state government to municipal governments in form of shared revenue and tax levy limits.
Tax levies, the amount of money municipalities can tax a community, have been tied to net new construction since 2006 by state legislators. Racine has seen some new construction, but not much. A lot of that has to do with Racine being landlocked. The land we do have is heavily contaminated.
Also, the amount of money the state has allocated to municipal governments over the years has shrunk. That was done because Wisconsin faced a massive shortfall in its budget.
Now, if you are a property owner, having lower taxes – albeit at the state level – was a welcome relief. But this decision also had consequences, especially when it came to impacting fire and police services. Those are the two largest line items in the city’s general fund.
In Racine, this is what happened to tax levies, shared revenue payments and the police budget over the past 15 years:
Now, I want to point something out: The police and fire contract was settled earlier this month. To pay for it, state lawmakers will need to agree to pay municipalities more in shared revenue – funded by state taxpayers – to cover that bill. Democrats and Republicans agree that shared revenue needs to increase, but they don’t agree on the amount.
This is the root of the problem, but only sort of.
The whole picture
We say we don’t want to defund the police, that we back the badge and we support the police, but the state has underfunded municipalities for years.
What’s more, Act 10 stripped the bargaining power away from those unions. Like it or dislike it – that’s what happened. And this is where we are.
Now public safety is rooted in political posturing around the defunding of the police narrative, but we’ve been doing that to large cities that haven’t seen new construction for years. So we need to set those political tropes aside to allow the complicated narrative around public safety to take place.
The Racine Police Department has a recruiting and retention problem. The public safety profession also has a public trust problem. But why?
In my discussions with officials from the Racine Police Unions, more mid-career police and firefighter personnel have left the job because of forced overtime, lack of consistent pay increases, and losing retirement benefits. But there’s a deeper issue here. Having 40 fewer law enforcement officials on Racine streets now puts officers under more stress due to higher and more acute calls for service. Meanwhile, the public has a legitimate concern around the escalation of gun violence in this town.
Couple that with officer-involved shootings and use-of-force issues, and you have the perfect storm for what is happening in Racine.
Also, we demand more from our public safety professionals. Meanwhile, our city has failed to address a number of key problems around housing, lead-based service pipes, asbestos, lack of mental health access, and education for years.
Is that changing? Yes, but it’s complicated.
The work being done and needing to be done
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of work being done to address issues around childhood trauma, access to mental health issues, gang intervention, and worker training programs.
The County is building a new Youth Facility to replace the Racine Detention Center and plans to build a mental health facility. The City, County and Racine Unified School District are collaborating around gang diversion programs and GED classes to name a few.
But we’re still focused on the middle of the problem when we need to go even deeper than that and look at housing instability. The city has been doing some work around that, including building 50 new homes, code enforcement, and grants and loans to rehab homes.
But it’s not enough, and the surrounding communities need to have deeper conversations around this issue as well, because it is a massive employment barrier.
We have people in Racine who have done the work of maintaining their credit, saved up thousands of dollars and qualified for a mortgage. But they can’t find an affordable home to purchase because we largely haven’t built affordable homes here since the 1970s.
Meanwhile, rent prices have skyrocketed. Over 10,000 homes have lead-based water service pipes and lead paint, which leads to learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
If you want an insurance policy for people not to thrive here, keep ignoring these things. If you want people to thrive here, we need to figure these problems out so that our businesses and communities can thrive.
These are not just problems that impact Racine. These are regional problems that need public officials who are willing to do the work around these important topics.
Unlocking Racine is a year-long solutions-based multi-media project which is shedding much-needed light on the housing instability crisis in Racine County. The Racine County Eye, which includes the Kenosha Lens, is committed to serving our local communities with integrity. We are your source for local news that serves our diverse communities. Subscribe today to stay up-to-date with local news.
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