July 31, 2008

Milwaukee Common Council OKs Wheel Tax, Sets Referendum on Paid Sick Leave

By Larry Sandler, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 31--By a veto-proof majority, the Milwaukee Common Council voted Wednesday to impose a $20-a-car annual vehicle registration fee on every car and light truck kept in the city.

Aldermen also set a binding referendum Nov. 4 on whether to require all private-sector employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers, and to let them use that time to take care of ailing family members. And the council agreed to expand city water sales to New Berlin.

The so-called wheel tax is expected to raise $6.6 million a year for street repairs, and it would eliminate special assessments for rebuilding and repairing streets. Supporters, led by Ald. Bob Bauman, say the money is needed to shorten the average wait for major street work, which stood at 163 years in 2005.

But Ald. Terry Witkowski said the money wouldn't be enough to speed up street work and "does absolutely nothing, other than hit the taxpayer in the pocketbook."

Ald. Ashanti Hamilton responded: "If we had more state shared revenue, we wouldn't have to have this debate. We don't."

The council backed Ald. Jim Witkowiak's amendment to cap the wheel tax at $20 through 2012, although Ald. Michael Murphy said that would have no legal impact.

The measure was approved 10-4; an 11th backer, Ald. Willie Wade, was absent. Mayor Tom Barrett has promised a veto, but supporters have more than the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto. The fee would take effect two months after the veto override.

Sick leave: The council voted 12-2 to place the sick leave measure on the ballot after supporters gathered more than 40,000 signatures on petitions demanding it.

Under the state's direct-legislation law, aldermen had only two choices: to approve the ordinance without changing it, or to send it to the voters. The maneuver bypasses Barrett, who has no say in the matter.

The measure would allow employees to earn sick leave based on time worked. A full-time employee in a large business would earn nine sick days a year, with less sick time for part-timers and workers in small businesses.

Supporters, led by 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, are trying to build support for national legislation. They already have won similar ordinances in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Ald. Bob Donovan and Witkowski said the measure could harm workers if businesses leave the city. Hamilton and Ald. Milele Coggs said their colleagues should leave the issue up to the voters who elected them.

Water sales: The water agreement, approved 9-3, calls for New Berlin to pay Milwaukee a one-time fee of $1.5 million, in addition to the estimated $650,000 a year that New Berlin residents and businesses would pay the Milwaukee Water Works through their water bills.

Eastern New Berlin already gets Milwaukee water. But central New Berlin relies on wells that have become contaminated with radium, and the Waukesha County community is under pressure to find a clean water source.

In Milwaukee, water sales are tangled in the politics of urban sprawl. Suburban leaders say their communities need clean water to grow. Some city officials, however, question why they should aid the development of suburbs that benefit from their proximity to Milwaukee but don't share in its social costs.

Wrapping up other matters before its August recess, the council also:

--Approved a $112,000 settlement with Detective Lt. Alfonso Morales, who had filed suit alleging that former Police Chief Arthur Jones and Assistant Chief Monica Ray retaliated against him after he arrested Ray's brother and triggered an investigation that eventually cleared Jones and Ray of wrongdoing.

--Set up a task force to review the way the council handles liquor licenses, in the wake of former Ald. Michael McGee's conviction on charges of shaking down business owners for bribes in exchange for licenses.

--Confirmed Barrett's nominations of state administrative law judge Carolina Stark to the Fire and Police Commission, environmentalist Benjamin Gramling to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission and attorney Claude Krawczyk to the Harbor Commission.

--Called on the Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission to study ways to rehire retired officers in part-time roles.

--Confirmed mayoral aide Rhonda Kelsey as purchasing director. Reappointed for new terms were three administrators who faced bruising confirmation hearings: Public Works Commissioner Jeff Mantes, City Engineer Jeff Polenske and Safety Director Florence Dukes.


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