The city of Milwaukee's pension and health care costs rank the city just outside of the Top 10 most expensive cities for taxpayers in the country.
The watchdog group Truth In Accounting last month published its fourth annual Financial State of the Cities report. Milwaukee is near the bottom.
Truth in Accounting's Shelia Weinberg and her group studied 75 cities, looking for the burden on taxpayers from city debt and city spending.
Milwaukee is ranked 62nd on the list, with a taxpayer burden at $12,800.
"Sixty-three of the 75 cities we studied have accumulated debt, despite having balanced-budget requirements. Milwaukee’s total unfunded debt is $2.8 billion with $1.1 billion related to pension debt and $1.2 billion related to retiree health care debt," Weinberg told The Center Square.
Milwaukee is the only city in Wisconsin to make the list, in part because Truth In Accounting didn't look at smaller communities in the state, but also because there are other cities that are worse off.
The report says New York City has the worst taxpayer burden, at $63,100. Chicago is second-worst on the Truth In Accounting list; the Windy City taxpayer burden is $37,100.
Weinberg said the specifics of Milwaukee's burden are troubling because the math on pensions and retiree healthcare for the city are so upside down.
"Milwaukee is one of 16 of the 75 studied that has retiree health care debt higher than its pension debt," Weinberg explained. "This retirement debt has accumulated, despite the city’s balanced budget requirement. While employees have earned their benefits each year, the city has incurred this as a compensation cost. Unfortunately, all of these costs have not been included in the balanced budget calculation and no money has been set aside to fund promised retiree health care benefits."
To make matters worse, Milwaukee is spending more money on the people who no longer work for the city than it does on workers who are still on the job.
"According to the latest financial report from the Employees' Retirement System of the City of Milwaukee there are 10,845 active members (employees) to 11,094 retirees and disabled people receiving benefits," Weinberg said. "There are an additional 2,102 'beneficiaries,' so the total number of benefit recipients is 13,196."
A number of Milwaukee alderman have proposed a series of tax increases as a way to help get the city's costs back in line with revenues.
Weinberg said her group doesn't focus on tax and spend policies, but said getting back to some basic accounting principles could help Milwaukee going forward.
"Last year the city reported their non-business activities lost more than $700 million," Weinberg said. "We believe the first step is for the city to truly balance its budgets, by including all costs, including compensation costs related to retirement benefits."