MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee County Parks is facing a financial crisis. Some public spaces are showing signs of neglect and county leaders say the current funding structure cannot meet staffing needs, major maintenance or repairs.
Here’s a pretty stark example: Milwaukee County’s parks operating budget hasn’t increased in 30 years. In fact, it is expected to continue to decline, and by 2027 local dollars for local priorities are expected to dry up. “Each county park employee is responsible for managing approximately 28 Lambeau Fields lands,” said Becky Stoner, executive director of the Milwaukee Co. Parks Foundation, in explaining the ripple effect on staff. “So we’re in this really unsustainable position and it’s not getting better.”
Staffing is one thing, but infrastructure needs add another piece to the puzzle. “We’re about $500 million in deferred maintenance,” said Guy Smith, executive director of Milwaukee County Parks. “It’s just the Parks Department alone, it’s not Milwaukee County as a whole.”
The domes in Milwaukee need about $60 million of work, and repairing lakeside erosion from Bayview Park to South Shore is another costly item on the to-do list. For many years the Lake Park Bridge over Ravine Road was closed due to needed repairs. And Bender’s boat ramp sinks into the silt. The redesign has a price tag of around $7 million.
By law, taxpayers’ money must first go to state-mandated services and the Parks Department does not fall into this category. Smith says a disastrous timeline is becoming clear. “We hit a fiscal cliff in 2027, which means — like for example in parks, the only things that would be left are revenue-generating things because the tax levy wouldn’t be there.”
Revenue comes primarily from golf courses, beer gardens and McKinley Marina. So why not look into it? Money could never fill the gap. And county leaders agree that focusing only on revenue-rich areas will not support the amenities that every part of the community needs and deserves.
“We want to be intentional in our investments in park spaces, especially in communities of color,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “We think that’s critical because we know that historically we haven’t made the investments that we want to see.”
Crowley joined county leaders in asking the Wisconsin Policy Forum to analyze the park’s financial problems and it led to a report titled “Sinking Treasure”.
“What was just remarkable was that the size of the Parks Department’s budget in 2019 was virtually identical to the size of the budget in 1989,” said Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The terrain, amenities and expectations have increased over the past 30 years, but not the budget. When asked what was the quickest way to achieve meaningful change, Smith replied, “Well, I’d love to say we could snap our fingers and we’d have sales tax, but it’ll take time.” And time is running out.
“There have been great solutions that have been discussed for decades,” Henken added. “The issue here is that they would require new revenue streams that would require approval from the State of Wisconsin, the Legislature, and the Governor.” WPC will soon launch phase two of the “Sinking Treasure” study, focusing on the feasibility of a shortlist of options that will not involve legislative approval. Some of the options are in the conceptual stage, such as new partnerships with Milwaukee Public Schools or the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
“Sinking Treasure” also explores unique solutions in a handful of peer cities and governments, some of which might work in Milwaukee County. “I believe it was Seattle where the parks were still in the city, under the responsibility of the Department of Parks, but they created a separate district – a park district that would just help create funds that could then go into this park system,” Forgeron said.
In Milwaukee County, Smith pointed to filling staffing gaps as the most pressing issue and said that without some type of intervention, residents would start to notice it. “It may sound simple – but we may not be able to empty bins as often or we may not have open toilets or our mowing cycles are going to be longer.”
If you want to do your part to help, taking action can be simple and rewarding. Visit any park, pick up trash and take a photo. Then post it on Instagram and use the hashtag #mkebrewhero. Local breweries and cafes offered prizes. For a chance to collect them, be sure to register online to become a Brew Hero.
Parks advocates want to encourage residents to join the budget discussion and say that every voice counts and can have a big impact when you show up at events and meetings.
Another way to get informed and involved is to join one of the “friend groups”. There are dozens of them, each focusing on a specific park – helping to volunteer, raise awareness and fundraise.
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