Milwaukee board overrides veto on union-influenced living wage bill


By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Some Milwaukee County supervisors apparently don’t care about an ethics complaint that hangs over their union-influenced living wage bill.

EXPENSIVE DECISION: The Milwaukee County Board on Thursday overrode a veto on the county’s living wage ordinance that’s expected to cost taxpayers millions.

The topic wasn’t even mentioned Thursday as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, in a 12-6 vote, overrode County Executive Chris Abele’s veto of an ordinance requiring an $11.32-an-hour minimum wage for thousands of county workers and employees contracted by the county.

Wisconsin Reporter on March 12 broke a story saying board members David Bowen and Marina Dimitrijevic and the Service Employees International Union and Wisconsin Jobs Now may have violated the county’s ethics code because of questionable campaign contributions.

An ethics complaint was filed against Wisconsin Jobs Now one day later for making campaign contributions to Bowen and Dimitrijevic as the living wage ordinance was being drafted and considered.

The person who submitted the complaint, who wishes to remain anonymous because of potential legal issues and harassment, told Wisconsin Reporter shortly after Thursday’s vote that a hearing before the Milwaukee County Ethics Board has not yet been held.

Wisconsin Reporter also was one of the first to report that SEIU agencies worked with Bowen on writing the wage ordinance.

The ordinance is a major boon to big labor, especially SEIU, because of a provision that exempts contracting companies from paying the living wage if their employees are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement between the employer and a bona fide labor union.

“That flies in the face of what Supervisors say this ordinance is supposed to do: raise the wages of workers,” Abele said in a news release. “This exemption creates the impression that the only people who would benefit from this Board action are the unions who will see a significant increase in the money they collect from workers, while the workers for these employers do not see an increase in their wages.”

Bowen received total campaign contributions of $180 from SEIU-affiliated officials nearly two months after he announced in early September plans to introduce a living wage proposal.

Wisconsin Jobs Now community organizer Peter Rickman, who gave Dimitrijevic $100 shortly after the board’s Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee was first presented with the ordinance Dec. 16, was one of the key players in drafting the legislation, according to supervisors Deanna Alexander and James “Luigi” Schmitt.

Dimitrijevic also received $750 from other SEIU representatives and organizations after Bowen’s living wage announcement.

Alexander has told Wisconsin Reporter that Rickman and other union officials were ubiquitous at the county courthouse during the drafting process, and they accompanied some supervisors to meetings.

Rickman also provided several board members in December with talking points and legal opinions to address any adversaries of the living wage, according to emails obtained via an open records request from Aaron Rodriguez of the Red Fox blog.

Those emails show Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb Sr. forwarded Rickman a report on the projected impact of the living wage proposal less than 10 minutes after Abele sent it to the entire county board.

Rickman responded a few hours later that he already “got a copy from a few different places.”

Abele, a Democrat, said in a news release Wednesday he vetoed the ordinance because of concerns over its projected effect on county finances.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Milwaukee County Comptroller’s Office estimates the living wage will cost taxpayers $4.2 million in 2015, rising to $7.3 million in 2019.

“Not only is that an unsustainable spending plan, it will also threaten our ability to maintain our core services, including many of the safety-net services that benefit low-income workers,” Abele said in the release.

The living wage also is expected to dry the reserves of the state-funded Milwaukee Department of Family Care by 2019, according to a report by County Comptroller Scott Manske.

The state has a tendency to eliminate insolvent programs, Manske has said.

If the department is forced to shut down, almost 90 Family Care employees and nearly 500 case workers and nurses would be laid off, according to Abele.

The loss of Family Care also would create an annual $3 million hole in the county budget, Abele said.

Abele, who says he supports reducing poverty in Milwaukee County, repeatedly has asked board members to instead press state and federal governments to raise the minimum wage to benefit all workers.

Supervisors who voted to override Abele’s veto were Bowen, Dimitrijevic, Lipscomb, Gerry P. Broderick, David Cullen, Jason Haas, Willie Johnson Jr., Michael Mayo Sr., Khalif Rainey, Peggy Romo West, Russell Stamper II and John Weishan Jr.

Board members voting to sustain the veto were Alexander, Schmitt, Mark Borkowski, Patricia Jursik, Anthony Staskunas and Steve Taylor.

Contact Adam Tobias at or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias

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