YORKVILLE — How much should the state be involved — and how much is the state involved — in local government decisions?
Those questions were in focus during a recent meeting of Racine County officials and state legislators, as part of their discussion included a proposal that would keep more 17-year-olds in juvenile detention, as opposed to sending them to a correctional facility.
The move would reportedly cost the county upwards of $2 million. While the policy may be sound, the bill represents an unfunded mandate, one of many hamstringing local governments, County Executive Jim Ladwig said.
Other bills passed during this legislative session show increasing state interference in local government issues, said Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
The highest-profile measures, including eliminating residency requirements for public employees and restricting local wage ordinances, haven’t directly affected Racine County. But Barca said the state set a precedent by passing those measures and warned Racine County officials about their impact.
“Your ability to pass ordinances to control your destiny is in jeopardy,” Barca said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, disagreed. The Legislature has only stepped in when local decisions affected state costs, he said.
The Milwaukee County Board’s living wage ordinance, for example, applied to those working in the state-run Family Care program. A new state law nullifies that.
“It was a darn easy decision to make because every nickel of that increase was paid for by the state of Wisconsin,” Vos said.
Counties and municipalities can still make their own decisions about how much to pay their workers if they are bearing the costs, he said.
Ladwig said he agreed with Vos’ reasoning, though he still expressed concern about other unfunded mandates.
Last year, the county submitted a list of almost 30 state rules it felt were unfunded or under-funded mandates — rules imposed by the state but not matched with state funding, often shifting the cost to local taxpayers.
County Supervisor Q.A. Shakoor II, who also attended the legislative breakfast last week, noted tax levy caps put in place hurt the county’s ability to generate more revenue.
“I find that as something that would be nice to be revisited,” Shakoor said. “I’m all for keeping the taxes lower and things like that, but I think ... the local officials have a better idea of what their community needs.”
The juvenile-detention bill has stalled as officials continue to mull funding options, said state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, a supporter of the legislation. But he said the focus should be first on the policy.
“I fall on the side of making sure that we don’t make wrong decisions with these children or reduce their options,” Lehman said.
But reflecting the local view, Ladwig said it should not be an either-or proposition — the funding and policy should be discussed at the same time.
“It would be a significant burden to our taxpayers as a result of this initiative,” Ladwig said, “if it is not adequately funded.”