Residents Jeer Pay-to-Park Plan
Abele sympathizes but says county must get revenue from somewhere.
A surly crowd of several hundred Milwaukee County residents chattered and boo’d their way through a public meeting Tuesday night as they faced down a group of Milwaukee County officials trying to explain their reasoning behind the “pay to park” plan.
The proposal calls for adding a parking meter system to a number of Milwaukee County parks to generate at least $1.6 million in revenue during the 2018 fiscal year. And at its core, it’s one small instrument proposed within the latest budget to fill in a funding gap that has widened over the years.
When it comes to finding lost revenue a 2016 survey by the Parks Department found that instituting parking fees to maintain existing services was among the top three preferences by respondents, behind increasing user fees 10 percent and seeking state approval for an increased sales tax.
This gap is the result of a few factors, one of them is the county’s enormous pension obligation. By 2028, without an increase in the tax levy, pension and healthcare will account for 97 percent of the county budget. Along with that, there are a slew of capital projects that need funding. At this time the county has $400 million in deferred maintenance largely because it has used funds from capital projects in past budget cycles to create new streams of revenue, according to Teig Whaley-Smith, director of the department of administrative services.
And a third, but very consequential reason, is the states shared revenue program. Much like the City of Milwaukee, the county has an inverse relationship with the state of Wisconsin in terms of revenue. Specifically, the revenue the county generates and sends to the state far exceeds the funds the state sends back to the county through its shared revenue program. In short the county is left trying to design budgets that keep the local government functioning while the state bleeds it like a medieval surgeon.
“The irony is that while we’ve been getting less from the state, the county sends about a quarter billion more every year to the state,” county executive Chris Abele said.
So as the amount of taxes the county sends to the state is increased and their returned share is slashed, they also control very few reliable mechanisms to create revenue streams. Possibilities like an increase in sales tax, or a property tax levy, or a higher state income or corporate tax are all controlled by the state. And the state has yet to change their formula for their shared revenue program leaving the county, like the city, perpetually with their hands out.
On the wall were large sheets of paper, and scrawled across them were attendees’ ideas about funding options or what they would say to a state senator. They included support for an increased sales tax, or an income tax for non-residents that work in Milwaukee County, a dedicated portion of property tax revenue for parks, and an entreaty to “Let us tax ourselves.”
The pay-to-park project was already part of the budget passed in November, but an amendment added by the Board of Supervisors requires their approval for the program to be carried out. The county currently operates a parking service at Mitchell International Airport and a lot in Westown, but Whaley-Smith said the county plans to contract with a private firm for this program because they don’t have the personnel or systems in place to handle it. The prospect of contracting for the service drew a huge booing rebuke from the crowd Tuesday that packed the greenhouse annex of the Mitchell Park Domes.
A few potential options for rolling out the plan included limiting the program to 47 parks charging between $1.50 and $2.50 for parking. This would bring in as much as $2.5 million. Another possibility would focus on fewer, more high-demand parks, potentially bringing in about $1.8 million. Especially with the high demand parks, Whaley-Smith noted the program would serve to capture revenue from out-of-town visitors.
At stake, really, is access to Milwaukee County Parks. While many simply don’t like the idea of paying for parking at a public park, others are concerned about access for low-income residents. Municipal fines like parking tickets have been identified as more than a nuisance for poorer residents of Milwaukee County, who at times have been jailed when they couldn’t pay them.
After an initial presentation, Lenore Lee, a volunteer at Lake Park, approached Abele at the front of the large greenhouse and told him she was disappointed. “We have low-income people that come to our park, they’re not going to be able to afford this.”
Abele told her no one, including himself, likes the idea of paying for parking at the parks.
“Well then you should have come up with other creative solutions,” she retorted.
“Well we’ve been working for six years, because we get less and less from the state,” Abele replied.
Lee told Abele that she volunteers at the parks and doesn’t want to pay for parking while she’s planting flowers and pulling weeds. And she told him, “Remember my name because I will not vote for you.”
Abele told Urban Milwaukee the difficulty with the proposal and the discussion that surrounds it is that, essentially, no one is wrong. “Nobody’s wrong to not want to pay more than they do, and nobody’s wrong to not want service cuts.”
There’s not a lot of money and there’s a lot at stake. Resentment of the pay- to-park policy is clearly very robust in Milwaukee County. But Abele said he’s sure that the other services the County is scrambling each year to fund are equally supported, like transit, support for the disabled, senior centers, or witness protection.
“The problem is they’re all coming out of the same budget, the biggest source of that budget is the state and the state’s giving us less,” he said.
More about the Pay To Park Controversy
- County Executive Abele Proposes Elimination of “Pay to Park” Program - County Executive Chris Abele - Feb 13th, 2018
- Residents Jeer Pay-to-Park Plan - Graham Kilmer - Feb 7th, 2018