City police might take over security at Mitchell airport

City police might take over security at Mitchell airport

By Steve Schultze and Don Walker of the Journal Sentinel

June 27, 2012

The Milwaukee Police Department would take over security at Mitchell International Airport from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, under a plan being considered by city and county officials.

Patrick Curley, Mayor Tom Barrett’s chief of staff, and County Executive Chris Abele confirmed the idea had been broached. Both said the discussion on the move was preliminary.

The idea comes on the heels of a large cut to Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr.’s 2012 budget and as he is seeking a major increase for next year.

Curley said the city was interested in the idea, which would shift almost 50 airport security jobs to city police and presumably cut a similar number from the sheriff’s deputy force. That would amount to a 20% reduction in deputies.

The topic of shifting airport security to city police came up in the context of discussions between city and county budget officials on "sharing efficiencies," said Abele spokesman Brendan Conway.

Abele said he was interested in exploring any ideas that might lower county service costs or improve services. The airport idea is one of a number of things he’s willing to explore, he said.

"That’s just what we want to find out – can this work," Abele said. The county faces a potential 2013 shortfall of nearly $30 million, according to a forecast unveiled last week.

Clarke questioned the wisdom of shifting airport security away from the county.

"There’s zero tax-levy costs on airport security," he said. Federal aid and fees collected from airlines currently pay for the county’s security costs.

Clarke also noted that if airport security were transferred to the city, county taxpayers would have to foot the bill for pension costs of deputies that now are covered by airport revenue.

"How does the county executive reconcile that? How do the county taxpayers come out ahead on that move?" Clarke said in a statement.

Abele did not tell the sheriff he was exploring shifting airport security to the city police, said Clarke spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin. Clarke has criticized Abele for failing to consult him on cuts the county executive pushed through for this year.

Abele said he won’t proceed with the plan unless it makes financial sense. If the police department can do the job more efficiently than the sheriff, ultimately taxpayers benefit, he said.

This year’s airport security costs are budgeted at $7.7 million, which includes salaries and benefits for 50 deputies, seven supervisors, four K-9 units and one clerical position. The dollar figure includes costs of pensions for retired deputies.

It wasn’t immediately clear how having the city take over airport security might ease the county’s budget woes. Airport Director C. Barry Bateman said deputies had provided airport security for decades. He declined to comment on the proposal.

County Supervisor Michael Mayo Sr., who heads the County Board’s transportation committee, said sheriff’s deputies were doing an excellent job on airport security.

"We are not here to help the city with its budget," Mayo said.

Making the change to MPD officers would require Common Council and County Board approval.

The shift would mean another big cut to the sheriff, who lost $11 million and 48 deputies in his 2012 budget. Those changes, pushed by Abele as budget-saving moves, were bitterly opposed by Clarke.

Clarke’s 2013 budget request seeks to expand, not contract. He is calling for increasing his overall budget to $155.5 million, including a $16 million increase in property tax funding.

Among the major shifts outlined in the sheriff’s request are creating a $5.5 million, 52-person transit unit for patrolling Milwaukee County Transit System buses; beefing up his detective unit by $1.3 million and 11 more deputies; and boosting spending for freeway patrols by $726,000.

The sheriff renewed his pitch for hiring an outside company to take over jail medical services, which his budget request says would save about $3 million and cut about 120 county jobs.

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