Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County May Have To Sell Parks

Report predicts county's growing structural deficit could mean selling parks to reduce costs.

By - Jul 2nd, 2019 05:40 pm
Lake Park. Photo by Dave Reid.

Lake Park. Photo by Dave Reid.

Unless Milwaukee County is able to generate new revenue through something like an increased sales tax, it will likely have to start selling park and cultural assets.

That conclusion comes in the latest report from the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF), as part of its final installment in its local government series. The group looked at the massive backlog of capital projects in Milwaukee County and found the cost to maintain infrastructure far greater than the local governments’ capacity to pay, as the backlog of projects in the county is projected to be higher that $400 million by 2023.

“The enormity of the county’s infrastructure backlog indicates that both new funding and liquidation of assets will be required,” the report says.

In their report the WPF lays out a number of tools the county can use like, revenue bonds as an alternative to general obligation bonds, increased public-private partnerships and changes in debt policy that would free up a couple million annually. But the savings or funding potential in these ideas does not come close to dealing with the backlog. Without new funding, the county may be faced with the tough decision of liquidating assets. And since 2016, more than one million square feet of county-owned facilities have already been sold off.

In response to the study, County Executive Chris Abele said Milwaukee County is at a “crisis point” because of the funding imbalance. “The Wisconsin Policy Forum Report lays out what we have known for a long time. Without adequate support from the state or the option to use new tools to generate the funding we need, our ability to maintain our facilities, community assets and high-quality services will be decimated.”

What the county needs is new sources of funding, either through greatly increased state shared revenue or the ability to levy something like an increase in the local sales tax, both of which would have to be approved by the state Legislature. Without this the county’s only way to pay for the backlog of capital projects would to start selling off assets, or what the WPF called “Trimming the List of Capital Needs.” But any of the capital needs related to mandated state programs can’t be trimmed. Only discretionary services the county provides could be sold off and the main example of this is the county parks. The parks, the study notes, are  “One of the few areas of discretionary capital spending for the county,” and “The biggest contributor to the list of requested projects from 2020 through 2023.”

As the WPF bluntly notes: “A decision to cull a significant number of such projects could generate a need to consider the closure and/or downsizing of entire parks or cultural facilities. That is because at some point, the need to repair buildings and structures and properly pave parkways, trails, and walkways cannot be avoided without threatening public safety.”

Sup. John Weishan, Jr. has been one of the most outspoken members of the county board when it comes to retaining parkland in the county and has vowed not to support any sale. He authored the 2008 resolution creating a countywide referendum asking residents if they wanted to add an additional .5 percent sales tax, which the majority did. He told Urban Milwaukee the state needs to step up and let the county increase the sales tax. “We don’t need to sell our parkland if they let us do a sales tax.”

Unfortunately for the county and its residents, securing an increased sales tax requires the cooperation of a severely gerrymandered Republican Legislature that tends to be opposed to anything that bears the name Milwaukee.

The WPF report offers a warning to policy makers in all levels of government, telling local leaders not to, “Shrug their shoulders and take care of as much work as is deemed affordable each year, which will never be enough to keep the list of needed projects from growing.” And for state leaders: “State policymakers can continue to insist that this is a locally created problem that merits a locally derived solution. A better approach, however, would be for leaders from both levels of government to collectively recognize that an effective response is critical to the economic health of the state’s largest metro area.”

Since the beginning of 2019 the county has been working to educate the public and community stakeholders on the county’s fiscal reality in the hopes that state legislators will listen. The ‘Fair Deal Workgroup’, as it was called, was overseen by Abele and County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. The group noted the county has an average structural deficit for operations that is $12.8 million annually, will face a structural deficit of nearly $80 million by 2023, and has a massive projected backlog of capital projects, even as its annual state shared revenue has been stagnant or declining. 

“An independent, non-partisan source affirms what we know to be true – Milwaukee County needs a renewed partnership with state government that enables us to make smart investments in our public assets,” Lipscomb said.

In a WPF report on the backlog of capital projects, it noted that an additional .5 percent sales tax allocated to the county would generate $79 million annually and, “Would allow the county to cash finance a significant portion of its list of requested projects from 2020 to 2023.”

And most of those projects that would benefit from a sales tax hike are parks and cultural assets.

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Categories: MKE County, Real Estate

12 thoughts on “MKE County: County May Have To Sell Parks”

  1. kmurphy724 says:


  2. Ron Hockersmith says:

    Or deal with the pension scandal aftermath.

  3. frank a schneiger says:

    Except for major metropolises, most cities have a limited number of valuable assets that define them. For Milwaukee, that most precious asset is its park system, historically the best in the nation, along with its now abandoned community recreation programs. As someone who grew up in those parks, Mitchell and Washington in particular, but at times, all of them, the County Executive’s and others’ willingness to piss away this legacy through under financing, neglect and indifference is depressing in the extreme.

    I have lived most of my adult life next to Central Park in New York City. I have seen it neglected and starved for resources in the same, but even more extreme ways, than Milwaukee’s parks have been in recent decades. I have also seen it reborn and made into the pre-eminent urban park in the world. It took money, lots of it and solid planning and implementation. Those who say that you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them should visit Central Park. All you have to do is throw it accurately.

    Urban parks are an important measure of a healthy civilization and society. They are also significant contributors to public health and happiness. Recent studies show that people who live within a 10 minute walk of a park are healthier than those who don’t, and these studies didn’t measure the mental health benefits. And, as Central Park and others have demonstrated, like the Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” It is a sad commentary on County Government that things have reached this stage, and it will be an even sadder one if there is public opposition from more than the usual reactionaries to paying a sales tax increase to make these parks flourish again.

  4. Neal Brenard says:

    Let’s lay the blame for this problem where it squarely belongs: on the Republican state legislators and Republican Governors of the past 30 years that choose to exercise their parochial, racist hatred of Milwaukee by denying Milwaukee County its fair share of State tax revenue and forbidding it to raise the funds required locally to provide needed services. These are the same forces that carried Wisconsin for the Republican Scott Walker regime here, and delivered the state’s electoral votes for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Corrupt to the core, the state Republican Party, funded largely by the state’s richest citizens, corporations, and anti-democratic foundations, has pursued their blindered vision to ruin Wisconsin with a vengeance most of us here find hard to believe. They violate commandments of god, laws of men, and universally accepted rules of fair play with abandon–and with Republican control of the state Supreme Court assured for the foreseeable future democratic checks and balances are useless.

    Absent a reversal of their moral decrepitude (unlikely), out-state voters and Republican gerrymandered districts will continue to elect these Republicans to positions of power at the state level. And absent a reversal of voter suppression here, and otherwise able Milwaukee County voters’ tendency to fail to show up to exercise the power of numbers Milwaukee has in statewide races at least, it’s hard to see how this changes.


    Neal Brenard, well put, thank you!

  6. Lee Bitts says:

    The voice of the people clearly states: We want the parks but we don’t want to pay for them.


    Lee Bitts, that is NOT the case. As the article stated, it is the Republican legislature that kills everything that impacts the city of Milwaukee, and I can’t think of any reason for it other than spite.

    Milwaukee County voters said “yes” to raising Milwaukee County’s sales tax by one percentage point to beef up funding for parks, transit and paramedics and to reduce property taxes, in an advisory referendum Tuesday.

    The advisory referendum was approved by a margin of 52% to 48%, with 96% of the vote counted early today.

  8. Lee Bitts says:

    Ellen Frederick: I stand corrected (3rd paragraph)! Thank you.

    The “ad hominem” part of me acts up every now and then.

  9. says:

    The failure of Milwaukee County to adequately maintain its parks would be a tragedy for Milwaukee and for Wisconsin. As a person who has spent her childhood and adulthood in those parks, I can only say my life would have been indelibly changed without them. For all our present and future children let’s not let these beautiful parks remain our most precious heritage as a city and county.!

  10. sidbickle says:

    Really messed up that the state legislature can decide the fate of county residents. If the overwhelming majority of MKE county residents support an increased sales tax, it still has to be approved by people who really don’t like urban hubs. Makes sense.

  11. Mary says:

    recommended reading: Virginia Small’s op ed in Shepherd re: Abele’s power to sell County property:
    “In a July 8, 2015 memo, former Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Paul Bargren listed powers Abele had finagled: “The executive could lease, sell or convey any non-park county property regardless of board policy and without board approval.” He added: “The new provision gives the executive the ability to ‘construct, purchase, acquire, lease, develop, improve, extend, equip, operate and maintain all county buildings, structures and facilities.’” Abele can sell or destroy taxpayer-owned buildings and designed landscapes on a whim. He can give away public land as favors, make sweetheart deals and grant long-term leases without accountability to the elected county board or taxpayers footing the bill.”

    Question: why did Abele contribute to Dale Kooyenga’s campaign?

  12. Patricia Jursik says:

    Phony crisis capitalism posturing to sell off public assets. When Milwaukee County revenue is tapped to buy a new arena to the benefit of million dollar NBA players, when the WI Center District steps up for more money to expand before the Democratic convention, and when money is available for both, it is a phony comment to say there is no money. There is no leadership, there is a misapplied list of priorities, there is a failure to listen to the voices of the local constituents. It is time to for Milwaukee County to consider suing the State which controls all of our local budget priorities, controls our local spending, gerrymanders local voters out of representation, grabs local dollars and returns less percentage wise than other counties. This is taxation without representation. Milwaukee County citizens have voted yes to be taxed for parks in a referendum, they signed petitions and attended town halls all last summer to tell our local leaders they support parks, they shot down parking meters preferring public parks to be open. Yet this sell the park crowd persists.
    Why? They want our public park land, and this is the way they will get it: Starve our parks and siphon off our tax dollars for their business interest. Rise up People. Contact Chris Abele now and ask him to show leadership to preserve parks.

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