Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Rich Park, Poor Park

Milwaukee County Parks is increasingly a two-tier system, with the worst maintained parks in poor areas.

By - Sep 14th, 2012 11:53 am
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It was ten years ago that Moody Pool was shut down by Milwaukee County, leaving the building on 2200 N. Burleigh to slowly deteriorate. “It’s been an eyesore that encourages crime,” says county supervisor David Bowen, who represents the area. “The lighting is not adequate. It’s really a disservice to our neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Hoyt Pool in Wauwatosa, which was shut down just one year after Moody, was rescued in 2010 with the help of some $6 million in private donations and a partial match of $1.5 million from Milwaukee County.

While inner city parks like Moody or Smith or Lindberg are left to decline,  Hoyt has been saved and Lake Park has been improved through donations from its Friends group — mostly well-heeled residents in the area. That sends a message, says supervisor and parks committee chairman Gerry Broderick. “I think these donors’ intentions are wonderful, but the public perception is that wealthy neighborhoods are being better taken care of,” he says.

County Executive Chris Abele agrees. “It’s not hard to find parks in the inner city that haven’t got much love in a while. It’s a lot easier for parks in the suburbs or the North Shore to have a friends group.”

Broderick points to the proposal to create a Neighborhood Improvement District for Juneau Park and Cathedral Square Park, which would add a surtax to the property tax for all residents and businesses in the area: they would pay up to 25 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. That amounts to $50 annually for the owner of a condo assessed at $200,000. This, he says, would set up a “formal two tier park system in Milwaukee.”

Jim Goulee, executive director of The Park People, the non-profit support group, agrees. “It codifies a two-tier system,” he says.

The rationale for the Cathedral and Juneau parks district has been reported by my colleague Jeramey Jannene. (He has also pointed out some problems — like a lack of public input — for the proposal.) Both parks are in strategic locations and their improvement could have a huge impact on the city. Milwaukee Magazine architecture critic Tom Bamberger has argued that connecting Juneau Park to the lakefront through some sort of formal staircase or greenway could create a dramatic connection between Downtown and the lakefront.

The taxing district is really a city issue, Abele notes. The district would be created by the city and would tax city residents in the area. Abele says he’s yet to see the proposal’s net cash impact for the county. “If the proceeds cover the extra costs for the county, that’s fine.”

Both Abele and Broderick, who have rarely been on the same page, suggest the county needs to re-prioritize the parks budget to make sure the funding is based on which parks have the biggest needs.

Easier said than done. The system is immense, as a 2009 county audit noted, with 156 parks and nearly 15,000 acres of parkland. It includes indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, golf courses, band shells, pavilions, athletic fields, two community centers, two indoor sports complexes, 153 miles of biking/hiking trails, four marinas/boat launch sites, the Mitchell Park Domes, Boerner Botanical Gardens, and many other attractions. Within the system, approximately 120 miles of roadway and 133 parking lots must be maintained.

But funding for the system has plummeted, the audit noted. “Expressed in constant 2009 dollars, the data show that operating budgets peaked at just under $98 million in 1978 and hit a low of $40.4 million in 2006.” The portion of the parks budget paid for by the tax levy dropped from 84 percent in 1962 to 56 percent in 2009.

Where is the other funding coming from? From higher user fees, from corporate sponsors like Miller Brewing Company (Bradford Beach), Harley Davidson (Washington Park), and philanthropist Michael Cudahy (the Domes), and from private-public arrangements like Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, Starbucks at Red Arrow Park‘s Skating Rink, and Zilli Hospitality Group at O’Donnell Park and the Domes.

Meanwhile a huge network of friends groups — nearly 50 — have been created to support the parks. Some raise serious money, some relatively few dollars and some merely provide volunteers for the parks, Goulee notes. “Just getting volunteers to do garbage pick-up or invasive plant removal, that’s more than the parks system can do.”

The list of friends groups is more diverse than you might imagine, but there is still none for more than two-thirds of the parks, and few for those in poor neighborhoods. “We want to get more representation for friends groups in the inner city,” Goulee says. “We’re acutely aware of that.”

Bowen says he has met with Abele and they have forged a possible compromise for Moody Pool. The county had budgeted $5 million, but a new pool would cost $8 million. So Bowen and Abele may propose a compromise: spend $2 million on splash pads and provide residents of the neighborhood access to the pool at North Division High School, while adding trails, benches and rebuilt basketball courts at Moody Park.

Abele says many of the parks most in need of attention are in Bowen’s district and the parks capital budget will be prioritized this fall to provide some needed funding. Yet he promises to do that without increasing the overall parks budget, which may not be easy.

Meanwhile, the county exec predicts his budget will be “essentially flat” when it comes to parks funding. “There are other county departments that are more likely to realize efficiencies,” he says.

That’s a departure from his budget of 2011, which cut the parks budget. (The county board restored the money.)  Maybe Abele is worried about the blowback from firing parks director Sue Black.

Whatever the reason, he seems to be moving closer to the board majority on the parks. And both Abele and Broderick seem intent on trying to address what the county exec calls the issue of “moral fairness” as to how parks in certain neighborhoods are — or aren’t — maintained. That’s a discussion that is long overdue.

Short Takes

-The idea that the county board might hire Sue Black as a government liason or lobbyist seems dead, one county insider tells me. Both Black and county board chair Marina Dimitrijevic have thought better of the idea, the source tells me.

-The taxing district for Juneau and Cathedral Square parks may never get off the ground, Broderick suggests: “I don’t think the folks putting this together have anticipated the reaction they’re going to get by overlapping another tax on top of the property tax. The taxes are already burdensome.”

-The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did an editorial arguing the Fire and Police Commission should not hire the consulting group PRI Management to audit the Milwaukee Police Department’s crime data. The newspaper has previously done stories arguing PRI’s leader is biased. But the JS subtly distanced itself from the newspaper’s prior reporting bashing Chief Ed Flynn, leading off with a quote from Stan Stojkovic, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Social Welfare, saying “there is no indication” that the original data was misreported on purpose.

Stojkovic has for decades been perhaps the leading academic on issues related to crime and the police in Milwaukee, as any reporter who’s covered this field knows. So why wasn’t he quoted in the original JS story to provide some balance to the experts implying the department was deliberately cooking the data? Either Stojkovic was interviewed but didn’t say what reporter Ben Poston wanted. Or he wasn’t interviewed, because Poston and the newspaper didn’t think he would support their thesis. As the editorial board has proven, Stojkovic is certainly happy to discuss the issue.

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Rich Park, Poor Park”

  1. Frank says:

    $8 million for a pool… WOW !! I am assuming there is a building included with that. Even so… $8 million? (Scratching my head right now)

  2. Mr. Michael Horne says:

    I recollect investigating why the East Town Association failed to provide funds to improve the park. It was one of the original rationales of Jazz in the Park and Bastille Days, if I am not mistaken. The ETA has assets that have steadily declined as revenues and expenses have increased. It is worth studying the financials of Music In The Park as well.

  3. Ivan Gamboa says:

    Let’s be careful talking about a two tiered park system. Mitchell Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park are all located in low to middle class neighborhoods. The thought that only rich people live by nice parks is not true. As far as Hoyt Pool it should be compared to Schulz Aquatic Center not Moody Pool.

    Also Juneau Park can be so much more than what it is right now. I hope everyone agrees that it needs an upgrade. The hard part is figuring out who is going to pay for it.

  4. judith ann moriarty says:

    what’s “wrong” with Juneau Park? It’s uncluttered and the restroom building, elegant and modest, resembles a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie structure. can’t we have a park that isn’t cluttered with “stuff?”

  5. julilly kohler says:

    Another thing I’ve not heard discussed is NID governance: who is appointed to the Board, how are nominations fielded and for how long; will there be elections?; if not, what is the accountability if things are being done that some members don’t like or want or think are skewed to certain factions; who sets the rates and what are the standards for justifying them, etc. This can be sticky — BIDs often are caught in the difficulties of answering these questions, but at least they have the common ground of “what is good for business?”. NIDs are more in the opinion and taste category, with potentially very different points of view — see Judith Moriarity’s post above that she prefers uncluttered, passive parks.
    Perhaps the difference in neighborhood parks will be the number of volunteer hours the neighbors put in rather than their ability to carry a second tax.

  6. judith ann moriarty says:

    julilly: Moriarty here. for a superb example of a once blighted triangle, folks should visit the tiny park at the west end of Brady. This is a terrific example of a partnership between Milwaukee and
    the extreme generosity and hardwork ethic of Mike Mervis and bride. Believe me, I saw Mike down on his hands and knees weeding this summer….they also donated a portion of their sculpture collection and yes, initially, I objected to that, but after sitting in the space they brought to fruition, I’ve heartily changed my mind.

  7. Eric Jernberg says:

    Count the number of pools that have been closed on the south side (none) vs the Northside: Moody, Carver, McGovern, Gordon, Madison, Dineen(sp?).
    What are they replaced with?.. Splash pads or zero depth pools. No wonder no one in the inner city can swim. When I guarded for the county, all the inner city kids were self taught to swim so they could go off the diving boards. Now the county tears down all the pools and if they build something new… Lincoln, there are no diving boards. Talk about dumbing down.

    In the suburbs, mom takes the kids every Saturday morning to lessons. In the city, all the kids were self taught. Washington park is the only remaining out door deep pool park on the north side.

    When funds get cut, the suburbs have they resources to keep things going. In the city; away go the pools. I am only using pools as a reference because I teach and coach swimming. I am sure there are other examples.

    So Tosa rebuilds Hoyt and charges an arm & a leg to get in, so all of their neighbors to the east, whose pools have been closed, can’t afford to stop over.

    I remember when Hoyt reopened, they had a media event with Tuxes and formal dresses. Talk about “Hoyty Toyty”

  8. Mike Bark says:


    The people who re-opened Hoyt Park raised $6,000,000 to get it done. They will have to continue to pay for the operating costs of the pool. How much do you think they should be charging people to get in? Who’s going to pay if the pool runs out of money again? You?

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