Downtown Roller Rink Looks Unlikely
Board struggles to find funding, plan lacks true budget and rink won't be ready for this summer.
The Milwaukee County Board may have once again put Milwaukee County Parks in the position of being the bad guy that knocks down a unrealistic proposal.
At the most recent board meeting, the board passed a resolution authored by Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson to allocate about $175,000 to fund the creation of a roller rink at Red Arrow Park this summer on the area used for ice skating in the winter and known as Slice of Ice.
Nicholson told her colleagues at the board meeting on June 23 that she introduced the legislation at the last minute, also bypassing the board’s committee process: “this was a late issue that came up, and I wanted to make sure that we could get that addressed as soon as possible.” The legislation directs parks to pursue a roller rink project for July, August and September of this year.
Nicholson noted the overwhelming public support for the project from people who testified at the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee in May. Supervisor Felesia Martin, a member of the committee concurred, saying the committee saw a great and diverse community support for the project.
Nicholson said the funding is flexible, and that parks is directed to return at the end of the year explaining how they spent the money to realize the project this year, or to simply prepare for next year. Parks staff told the board on the morning of the meeting via email that there was a “timeline concern” for implementing the project this year.
Reached this week by Urban Milwaukee, Interim Deputy Director of Parks James Tarantino said, “There’s no way we’re gonna be able to do this by July. Frankly, doing anything this summer is gonna be a challenge.”
That’s because the scope of the project will require parks to go through the county’s procurement process, which could take months. In May, parks told the board the $58,000 quote was not arrived at formally, stating this in a report: “This is a preliminary cost estimate and should not be used for budgetary purposes without conducting a separate procurement process.”
Parks staff told the board in May that the frame rink would likely be needed to protect the ice skating rink, which the county has invested significant funding into over the years and which generates net revenue for the county. The $58,000 quote comes from the contractor that built such a rink in Philadelphia.
Just as Slice of Ice does, the roller rink would make money for the county, Nicholson told her colleagues. But Slice of Ice makes money through ice skate rentals, and the parks department doesn’t own any roller skates, so it will need to buy them.
Parks has no idea the true cost of the project; the budget for the project does not include funding for skate rentals; and it’s highly unlikely the project would get off the ground in 2022. So any funding spent on the project in 2022 would come with no revenue in return, much less a net profit.
Board Debates Using Contingency Spending
The spending item for the roller rink comes from the county’s contingency account – often used to balance the budget at the end of the year – and is small compared to an annual county budget of more than a billion. Nonetheless it shows how the county’s structural deficit and revenue challenges create a budget always dancing on a knife’s edge.
The Office of the Comptroller provided a budget projection to the board in June showing that the county was already on track for a $900,000 budget deficit in 2022. Two fund transfers approved by the board did bring the budget to a break even, assuming no more funding was spent from the county’s contingency account.
Supervisors Shawn Rolland and Liz Sumner pointed to the projected deficit to explain their reluctance to vote for the resolution. Sumner said she’s been consistent on her position toward spending down contingency funding. “I love this idea…This is something I would really like to support,” she said, but “I’m struggling with how we’re gonna finance it.”
Sumner said she was “fortunate or unfortunate” to have been elected in 2020, with federal pandemic funding flowing in, allowing the “budget to move along without so much concern for cutting and having to really watch every dollar that we spent; that’s really not the case any more.”
“Nearly every year this body claims that we’re in dire financial straits, when something is before us that the status quo doesn’t like,” Sup. Ryan Clancy said. “And then after having defeated those things we find money at the end of the year, we end up with a surplus. Then we spend it on things which maybe don’t have as much substance.”
Staskunas scoffed at Clancy’s claim: “He doubts that we are in dire financial straits. Oh my, I mean, we really need to take a look at the budget. Sup. Sumner’s right, the folks that were elected in April of 2020 have been living in an alternative sort of county world with ARPA funds coming in hand over fist.”
“And after the ARPA money runs out we’re all gonna be hit in the face with reality again,” Staskunas warned, “where our choices are gonna be what to cut.”
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