Mayor Cavalier Johnson's State of the City Address

June 26th, 2023

Thank you all for the kind welcome this afternoon.  This is truly a special location.  The Henry Maier Festival Park is a place of celebration, entertainment, and memories.  This is a public space where people from across Milwaukee and beyond come together. For decades, we have enjoyed a vision first imagined at City Hall, and followed through by creative people who built this place – and events here – into what we know today.

This is an unusual time for a State of the City presentation, but that’s fitting for an unusual year.  The uncertainty surrounding our financial predicament made a presentation about our situation impossible. Now, after months of effort, our work to put Milwaukee government on a sustainable fiscal course is almost done.

My strategy has been to build consensus among groups of people who are often at odds. While that sounds like common sense, it has become a political rarity in a world where harsh, strident, and inflexible positions prevent progress.  Communicating, partnering, and seeking the common good is the best path forward as we address the major challenges in front of us.

I focus on what we have in common.  We are One Milwaukee, a city composed of a remarkable array of people with varied backgrounds, cultures, and races.  We are One Milwaukee where residents may speak different languages, have different educational experiences, and different levels of wealth or poverty.  Yet those differences do not divide us on the most important civic concerns.  We are One Milwaukee in our shared desires for public safety, equitable economic opportunity, and city services that serve the needs of every person in every neighborhood.

Overall, our economy is strong with an unemployment rate in Milwaukee County running around three percent. That’s better than the national rate.  However, we cannot ignore the clear disparities in economic health that exist within our city.

In the center of the city we are seeing a boom that is plainly evident.  First, in construction where work is underway on multiple significant structures.  Three separate projects have started that will add high-rise residential buildings, each more than thirty stories.  Other big residential projects are expected to start soon.

The second way we can see the economic boom is in the companies choosing Milwaukee for growth and expansion.  Milwaukee Tool is joining Komatsu, Rite-Hite, and Michels with projects that have brought large numbers of good jobs to Milwaukee.  Northwestern Mutual is starting a major addition to its campus that will add employees to downtown.

And Fiserv, a Fortune 500 company, is moving its headquarters to Milwaukee, right at the corner of Wisconsin and Vel R.Phillips Avenues. The hundreds of Fiserv employees working from the new offices could have been moved to any of the company’s locations across the country.  Instead, Fiserv selected Milwaukee.

Milwaukee is in the midst of a resurgence in the hospitality sector of our economy, too.  Make no mistake, our city is the preeminent location in Wisconsin for tourism and convention activity. Modern Great Lakes cruise liners have selected Milwaukee as the city to begin and end itineraries bringing thousands of passengers to our port.

Our new addition to the Baird Center will double the convention capacity bringing up to 100-thousand additional out-of-state convention goers here each year.  Next summer, the Republican National Convention will allow Milwaukee to show the nation, and the world, we are an ideal location for major events.  And, with Visit Milwaukee, I am working to attract more big events to our city.

And our future requires more than just building and growing.  We also have an obligation to address the challenges Milwaukee faces. 

For example, the Black infant mortality rate is three times higher than that of White infants. Milwaukee Health Department programs such as the BOMB Doula program provide maternal and child health services, improving outcomes.

Only 70% of Hispanic residents have health insurance, compared to a 95% coverage rate for Whites. Our Community Healthcare Access Program addresses this racial disparity by enrolling Milwaukee residents into BadgerCare Plus and Foodshare services.

Childhood blood lead levels are twice as high among Black children compared to those of White children. Last year the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program received 109 elevated blood lead level referrals and issued hundreds of permits for abatement services to homes in Milwaukee.

We see disparities in the economy.  So, the City of Milwaukee requires development projects that receive significant municipal support to employ city residents who are unemployed or underemployed.  We require those projects to use small disadvantaged businesses.

While Milwaukee does not currently provide racial preferences in hiring or contracting, the Wisconsin legislature recently imposed explicit restrictions against racial preferences. I opposed that.  It was unnecessary.  And, it bluntly ignores the reality in Milwaukee.

I will state it clearly: Government has a moral obligation to assist its residents who are discriminated against.  We have a moral obligation to help those who have been left out.  It is basic human decency to intervene when harm disproportionately affects one or more racial groups.

Milwaukee will not defy the law.  However, we will find ways to follow through on our principles.

A separate challenge Milwaukee is wrestling with involves young people who are disconnected from societal norms and acting in destructive ways.  It is evident on our roadways and in crime statistics.  I believe in consequences for breaking the law, but a punitive approach, alone, is not sufficient.

I am adding something else to the mix, attention to the root causes of the problem.  Based on my personal experience, I know that positively engaging young people in their pre-teen and early teen years can make a major difference in the direction their lives take.

Milwaukee is rich with resources that can help.  Young people can find direction at organizations like those associated with the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee, Safe and Sound, at the Boys and Girls Clubs, and at Milwaukee Rec programs.  New opportunities exist through the Milwaukee Police Athletic League and other programs.  A new city website, Hello Summer, is a connection point for events, programs, and employment.  That’s at

I also want to call attention to one of my favorite programs, Camp Rise. Camp Rise emerged from a group called Voices of the Elders.  It is a concept I immediately embraced.  As it has grown, Employ Milwaukee, along with Milwaukee Public Schools and many generous donors have made it a truly valuable program. And, I offer a special thank-you to Governor Tony Evers who immediately recognized the value of Camp Rise, and directed significant resources to make it a reality.

Camp Rise invites kids between the ages of ten and thirteen to open their worlds, to see what’s possible, and to equip them with basic tools they need to find positive direction in their lives.  A distinguishing aspect of Camp Rise is that participating young people receive a stipend, a nominal amount of money for participating.  It is a taste of how the working world operates, and, more importantly, how they fit into that world.

I want to introduce De’Anthony Roaf, he’s a Camp Rise alumnus.  You may have read his story in yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  I remember when he introduced me at a Camp Rise media event, and he did that well.  It’s fair to say De’Anthony’s eyes were opened to new possibilities through Camp Rise.  And, yes, De’Anthony, someday you could be Mayor.

Yes, we are One Milwaukee, and we all have a part to play in guiding our young people to success.

A very large portion of my attention in recent months has focused on the fiscal challenges the City of Milwaukee faces. Without a major change in the structure of our finances, we will experience draconian cuts to our police, our fire department, and our libraries.

When I became Mayor, I pledged to resolve the decades-old broken financial relationship between Milwaukee and state government. 

Nearly forty years ago, Mayor Henry Maier expressed his outrage that the expected growth in shared revenue, the money Wisconsin provides to local governments, was being constrained.  Years later, the amount sent to Milwaukee was frozen, and for the last twenty years the money “shared” through shared revenue never increased.

That was unsustainable, particularly for a city with no viable alternative for raising tax revenue.  You see, Milwaukee is an outlier, a city in a unique situation among major urban communities in having just one tax revenue source.  That’s the property tax.  And the property tax is not a tax source that keeps pace with inflation.

In recent city budgets we have dodged the inevitable and extreme cuts by deploying federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to fill the gap.  However, that was hardly a long-term strategy.

Complicating the situation, our city pension system is requiring a much greater contribution in order to fulfil our obligation to city retirees.

So, I took our case to leaders in the State Capitol.  I said I would have a cot in the capitol, and I spent an enormous amount of time there.  That led to one of the most remarkable aspects of this journey: city and state legislative leaders were able to talk.  The political barriers to substantive communication, in place for a long time, began to fall away.  Milwaukee’s predicament was, at last, getting the full attention of state leaders.

The discussions explored, in great detail, the complexities of the situation.

Of course, no elected official wants to champion a new tax, but our reality presented no alternative.  Even so, there were questions. What was the right tax rate? What mechanism should be used to initiate the tax?

Then, building support among the Republican caucuses in the Assembly and Senate introduced a range of demands and changes.  Add police officers.  Add firefighters.  I could embrace that.  But then there were the punitive provisions.  Restrict funding for the streetcar. Add impediments to new programs and spending.  Limit diversity and inclusion work.  Take power from the Fire and Police Commission.

Milwaukee’s fiscal cliff opened the door to Republican demands that would never have passed muster for me or at the city’s Common Council.  No matter how loudly I said no, the steamroller of political reality moved forward.

Let’s be clear.  Milwaukee accomplished its top objective. We now have a solution that will overcome decades of fiscal problems and our city now has a path forward.

To achieve this, Milwaukee had a number of solid partners.  County Executive David Crowley and Milwaukee County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson have been right alongside us. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities have all played important roles.  From inside City Hall, the Intergovernmental Relations and Budget offices have done extraordinary work.

And, thank you, Common Council President Jose Perez for the time and effort and numerous trips you made to Madison.  Your private meetings and public testimony amplified the city’s position on a range of issues.

Ultimately, legislative leaders rallied around Assembly Bill 245.  Speaker Robin Vos and Representative Tony Kurtz in the Assembly and Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Senator Mary Felzkowski in the Senate were among those who led the way. Democratic legislators were champions, too including Senator LaTonya Johnson and Representatives Kalan Haywood, Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, Christine Sinicki and Deb Andraca. Thank you, all.

I also can’t overstate the important role Governor Tony Evers played in this process. I know there were times, Governor, that your patience – and your values – have been tested. Milwaukee is grateful for your support. Governor Evers, thank you.

So, where do we stand now? I support a two percent city sales tax.  The decision to move forward on that is now in the hands of the Milwaukee Common Council where at least ten Council members must approve.

For our long-term budget prospects, there are reasons to be hopeful, but there is not yet certainty.  We only have estimates of the actual revenue we might receive from the sales tax, and the new costs associated with pension changes add to the uncertainty.  What is clear is that Milwaukee’s fiscal situation will be far, far better with a sales tax than without.

It is important to note that the most objectionable non-fiscal matters included in the state legislation are in place irrespective of whether local approval of the sales tax occurs.  The limitations on streetcar expansion, the rulemaking authority of the Fire and Police Commission, the mandated police in public schools, and the elimination of race as a factor in hiring or contracting, all of this is now the law whether or not we move forward on the sales tax.

Frankly, what’s at stake in the upcoming Council vote, is whether Milwaukee will have the resources to provide the basic city services our residents need.

Without this new revenue, we will have no options other than laying off hundreds of police and firefighters, devastating our ability to respond promptly to emergencies.  Libraries all across the city will be shuttered.  We will spiral into a deeper and deeper fiscal crisis.

We’re working with alders to answer questions and encourage support.  I’ve pointed out, for the first time, visitors and commuters will start paying for the local services they receive.  I’ve pointed out that the sales tax is not collected on basics like groceries and prescription drugs.  And, I have shared a brighter vision for the future in which emergency responses are faster and libraries will be open, offering more innovative programs for our younger residents. That’s how we build One Milwaukee we can all be proud of.

I am hopeful we can resolve our structural fiscal problems so that our attention can be refocused on other challenges ahead of us.

I have no higher priority than improving public safety in Milwaukee.  Fear, crime and violence disrupt our quality of life.  They undermine our economy. And, too often, they destroy lives.

Let’s start with a look at reckless driving.  We have all experienced the shock of a reckless driver ignoring a traffic signal or irresponsibly passing on the right or tearing along local streets as if they were driving in some invisible NASCAR final lap.  Too many innocent drivers have been smashed into.  And, yes, too many lives have been lost.

There are four different ways we are taking on reckless driving.  First, we have formally tasked city staff to lead the response.  That includes implementing best practices from organizations such as NACTO and Vision Zero.  A great deal of that work has been led by Kate Riordan, from Department of Public Works. And, in recent weeks, we have added a new team leader, Jessica Wineberg in our Department of Administration. We are listening to residents and developing new plans.

The second way we are working to reduce reckless driving is through education.  Partners such as the Greater Milwaukee Urban League are working to get hundreds of people trained and licensed to drive.  At Milwaukee Rec, driver training is broadly available at reasonable fees.

Some of our biggest investments are in our third approach, and that involves physical changes in our roadways that make reckless driving much less likely.  I’m sure you’ve seen our work.  We are constricting lanes and adding crosswalk bump-outs.  New concrete is being poured on a regular schedule.  That’s improving safety for drivers and car passengers.  And, it is also directly advancing another concept that is so important to me; streets are for everyone – and should be designed with pedestrians in mind, with scooters and bicycles in mind, and with local businesses in mind.

The fourth step is enforcement.  The Milwaukee Police Traffic Safety Unit is laser focused on holding reckless drivers accountable for their actions.  Officers are out there pulling over violators, writing tickets, and, hundreds of times, they have used their legal authority to tow the cars of repeat reckless drivers and unregistered vehicles used by reckless drivers.

The Traffic Safety Unit targets locations all around the city.  In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret, our police are so forthcoming about their enforcement that they announce in advance where the High Visibility Enforcement Efforts will take place.  Go on the website, you can see that right now, they are out on Silver Spring Drive west of 43rd Street, on the watch for reckless drivers.

I am grateful for the support from the State of Wisconsin in our reckless driving efforts.  Governor Evers’ State Patrol, which ordinarily does not operate in the city, has assisted us on multiple occasions.

We track the numbers on reckless driving – the crashes, the tickets, the injuries and fatalities. I want more progress, but I have confidence we are moving in the right direction.

One number that’s particularly noteworthy – and related to a major subset of reckless drivers – is the big reduction in the number of stolen cars.   Motor vehicle thefts are down almost one-third this year, when compared to this time last year.  And, compared to two years ago at this time, the number of stolen cars is down almost forty-percent.  That’s good news.

Those numbers are a part of a trend that bodes well for Milwaukee. Part One crime, a definition established for FBI major crime reporting, is down about fourteen percent so far this year.  And that continues the good news we saw for the full year in 2022, when crime was down significantly compared to the previous year.

Yes, there are still too many instances of property crime and violence.  But, a number frequently cited in crime discussions is the number of homicides.  So far this year, homicides are down about thirty percent in the City of Milwaukee.

There is no magic solution to urban crime and violence.  The causes are complex; the solutions are, too. 

Our police are central to the safety of our city.  They respond in emergencies, enforce the laws, arrest the criminals, and they deter and prevent crime.  As I have said frequently, though, the police cannot do it alone.  Safety is a cause we can all take part in.  In my vision of One Milwaukee, everyone has a responsibility for reducing crime.

So, what does that mean? We all are obligated to report suspicious activity.  We all have a role in holding people accountable.  We can join with our neighbors in block clubs. We can offer mentorship and guidance to young people.  All of this will help make our city safer.

Partnerships are key, and that is a significant part of the work underway at the Office of Violence Prevention.  Under the leadership of Ashanti Hamilton, that office is mobilizing dozens of Promise Keepers who are making connections with community resources in the work to make the city safer.

The frequency in which guns are used to attack others in Milwaukee is appalling. There are simply too many guns in the hands of people who should not have them.  Do we need tighter background checks on all gun sales?  Yes.  Can we add appropriate restrictions on magazine capacity and conversions that make handguns into automatic weapons? Yes.  Can we crack down further on straw purchases and felons who shouldn’t have guns? Yes.

Reasonable changes in gun laws are not local matters.  So, today, again, I call on state and federal elected officials to start making the changes in gun laws that people in Milwaukee need.  Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Gwen Moore, you have been thoughtful champions of public safety, and I am appreciative of your work.

I also ask gun owners to take their responsibilities more seriously.  Let me offer this example, in the City of Milwaukee, last year, 737 guns were stolen from cars.  Think about that.  That is hundreds of guns now in the hands of people who, absolutely, should not have firearms. If you can’t take your gun into a bar, a restaurant, a theater, or a sporting event, don’t bring it in the first place.  Do not leave a gun in your car.

We have challenges other than crime, and we are making progress on those fronts, too.

I have some good news to share today from the Milwaukee Water Works. Together, we have established a new goal of replacing all remaining lead service lines in Milwaukee within the next twenty years.  That will reduce by two-thirds our previously estimated time for removing lead laterals. There is no question, any lead exposure is dangerous to young children, and every parent wants their child drinking clean, safe water. We are taking all reasonable steps to get lead out of drinking water and, in doing so, we are advancing a more equitable and healthier city.

President Joe Biden’s EPA is allocating billions of dollars for local governments to replace lead pipes, and Milwaukee is well positioned to tap into these resources.  Working with our state partners, local contractors, advocates, and homeowners, we can replace all of Milwaukee’s lead service lines much faster than was initially laid out.

There are a lot of great people working for the city of Milwaukee.  They do their jobs with dedication and talent.  And, on a regular basis, they step up and accomplish something extraordinary.

Let me give you an example. Two and a half months ago, Tawanna Jordan, a Milwaukee Parking Enforcement Officer, was in the right place at the right time. She spotted a person on a bridge who was obviously contemplating suicide. Now, Tawanna could have simply called for help, but she chose to do much more.  She stopped, talked to the person, and she said, “You are loved.”  She was able to walk the person back to the sidewalk and stood by until the police crisis intervention team got there.  Please stand, Tawanna. Thank you.  I am so proud to have you as a colleague.

Our One Milwaukee is, already, a great city.  And we can do even more to build on that. At my direction, we are moving forward with an ambitious plan to add up to fifty miles of protected bicycle lanes on our city streets.  I want these fifty miles under construction or in active development by 2026.  Yes, this is an aggressive and attainable goal.

There are numerous benefits to our bike lane plan.  We are connecting the city with a new transportation alternative which adds safety for bike riders.  We are promoting a way of getting around that improves both physical and mental health.  And, the addition of protected bike lanes with a defined boundary from the car lane will promote traffic calming and additional safety for all roadway users.

You will see the start of this work underway this year with the protected bike lanes on Highland Avenue from 20th Street west to Washington Park and on Lapham Boulevard from Cesar Chaves Drive to Sixth Street.

Last month’s groundbreaking for the new Martin Luther King Branch Library, which opens in the Fall of next year, represents my commitment to Milwaukee’s neighborhood-based network of library branches.  Our city’s libraries stand as powerful symbols of education; they foster connections with city residents that lead to literacy, jobs that pay sustainable wages, reduce violence, and foster a safe environment for children and young adults.

Our library also achieved remarkable fame. Its highly creative social media campaign has successfully reconnected local residents with the library and has refreshed the national image of both libraries and of Milwaukee.  With well over 90,000 followers, the library’s TikTok and Instagram campaigns have been so successful Visit Milwaukee recently presented the Milwaukee Public Library with the 2023 Dear MKE Award. Congratulations.

I think a lot about our city’s future.  Our economy, our quality of life, and our identity will continue to evolve.  My role, and the role of so many other leaders here, is to guide Milwaukee’s evolution in ways that benefit the people who live here.  That’s part of what One Milwaukee means, building consensus, having goals, and moving us forward.

I’ve talked about wanting Milwaukee to be a city of one-million residents.  One Mil for One Milwaukee.  That’s not just a numerical milestone.  It’s a vision, and a goal that allows us to think big. Reaching one-million people will add new energy and new opportunity.  It would redefine Milwaukee in the eyes of people from coast to coast, elevating all the best things about our city.

Yes, it’s ambitious.  Let’s be ambitious.  Because Milwaukee’s destiny is in our hands.

Today, the State of the City is promising.  Key factors are aligning in very positive ways.  Doubters and pessimists, we proved you wrong.

I believe in Milwaukee. I believe in One Milwaukee.  We live in a community of new opportunities, new optimism, and renewed promise for all of us. Let’s make the most of it.  Let’s make our future something our children – and our children’s children – will celebrate.

Let’s create the best version of ourselves, the best version of our neighborhoods, and the best version of the city we all love.

Thank you, Milwaukee. You’re the best!

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