Op Ed

County Parks Are in Great Danger

Decades of declining funding hurting them. If you love the parks, here’s how you can help.

By - Dec 25th, 2020 12:47 pm
Dineen Park. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Dineen Park. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Milwaukee County has recently completed the annual budget process, which prioritizes funding levels for all County departments and fiscal initiatives in 2021. Milwaukee County Parks thanks both County Executive David Crowley and the entire Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors for their collaboration and support of Parks during the process, which included efforts to restore funding to the parks and recreation spaces that County residents and visitors rely upon and enjoy.

Milwaukee County Parks has been forced to reckon with an imbalanced, inequitable financial structure that has been deteriorating since the mid-1980s, which is evidenced by reductions of staff and funding year after year. The State of Wisconsin requires Milwaukee County to perform certain, mandated duties as an arm of the state government, and although Parks, Recreation & Culture is a department of Milwaukee County, it is not considered one of those mandated duties. As mandated duties increase in cost over time, the funding sources provided by the State to pay for doing those services do not keep pace. The result is that our elected officials are forced to prioritize using local tax dollars for State-directed mandates over “optional” services like Parks and Transit. Without new diverse revenue sources, like the proposal by the Milwaukee County led Move Forward MKE Coalition to introduce a local sales tax as a long-term funding solution, more cuts from unmandated services are needed to fund mandated services. This reduction in resources for local priorities has led to the steady decline of funding for the parks department.

To adapt to reduced tax support over time, Milwaukee County Parks has shown ingenuity and flexibility by supplanting property tax revenue with other sources. Direct charges like those earned by golf courses, food and beverage sales, marina operations and partnerships support nearly 60% of Parks’ annual operating budget. These revenues are the primary resource that make it possible for Parks to continue providing services that were once funded by property taxes; including operation of our aquatic facilities, community centers, and basic maintenance tasks like mowing grass and collecting trash. Relying on direct charges is not sustainable and ties the department to maintaining those revenues or face even more severe service level declines.

The events of 2020 have exacerbated the precarious state of the park system in Milwaukee County. COVID-19 prohibited gatherings, restricted business hours, and suppressed already tight funding sources in the County. The murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others brought the pandemic of racism to the forefront of public acknowledgement too. In the case of both pandemics, COVID-19 and racism, the public became even more reliant on our non-mandated – underfunded – parks and open recreation spaces for safety, health, and expression. As the need for Parks increased in 2020, our direct revenues decreased. This imbalance diminished our ability to cut grass, pick up trash, open our pools, and staff community centers. Not only is this structure financially unsustainable, it is not equitable. Those communities that can afford to seek recreation elsewhere, or subsidize county funding to their neighborhood parks, suffer less interruptions than those communities who cannot.

Over recent decades, the total budget for Milwaukee County Parks has remained stagnant, hovering between $35-40 million per year. Parks’ approved operating budget for 2021 is $36 million. If the annual operating budget would have kept up with inflation, the 2021 operating budget would be around $100 million, more than double of what the department has today. Milwaukee County Parks’ reliance on taxes versus direct revenue charges has changed over time. In 1980, property taxes accounted for more than 60% of Parks’ operating budget; today, that portion has reduced to 45%. In 1980, the tax levy for Parks was 47% of the entire county tax levy, in 2003 it was down to 10% and in 2020 it is 5%.

Milwaukee County Parks are a vital component of why Milwaukee is a wonderful community to live in. The parks system is a gift of foresight by the founders to our region, which continues to evolve and grow. Unfortunately, the resources to steward this essential system have not grown along with it. In 1980, there were over 1,300 full time equivalent employees in Milwaukee County Parks. In 2020, there were less than 450, including seasonal employees. Today these staff support a larger system and provide more services. If Milwaukee County Parks were staffed at the national median level for park systems, it would have an additional 300 full-time equivalents. The current staffing level is only enough to support a system that is smaller by one third or 4,900 acres.

The funding challenges that affect Milwaukee County affect the Parks. County revenues do not keep pace with expenditures and a state enabled local sales tax would help decrease the dependence on property tax while providing funding for important local priorities. Drastic changes are necessary to address the steady reduction of funding for Milwaukee County Parks. Make no mistake, our beloved parks system is at risk. A community conversation is not only necessary to provide resources to the system as it is now, but to inform what our system might become, to equitably support the needs of our residents.

Early in 2021, Parks plans to embark on a research and analysis project in partnership with the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The project will review how our system has been funded over time, identify the challenges we face, explore national models for long-term sustainable parks funding, and identify short- mid- and long-term options to get parks on the road to fiscal sustainability. We are working on a plan for ensuring our parks system remains alive and well for future generations.

Right now, we are asking for your support through our Love Your Parks campaign, where you may share your story on why Milwaukee County Parks matter to you, micro-volunteer, or make a tax-deductible donation to the Milwaukee Parks Foundation.

Jeremy Lucas, Director of Administration & Planning at Milwaukee County Parks.

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Categories: Op-Ed, Parks

One thought on “Op Ed: County Parks Are in Great Danger”

  1. Swaterhouse says:

    I am so grateful for all of the beautiful Green space Milwaukee has! With the pandemic…I think we ALL know how much that space was appreciate as an outside space to socially distance and gather with friends! For many…donating is not an option right now..But wondering if a list of ways users could ‘Pitch In’ could be promoted? Litter Pick Up Weekend in your favorite park this spring? When you picnic, bring a trash bag and take your trash home! How else could we help in Parks & on our Trails??

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