Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Should County Parks Serve Wine, Spirits?

State law prevents this. County officials pushing legislators to allow this as a revenue generator.

By - Aug 25th, 2022 08:16 pm
Photo by Joey Grihalva.

Photo by Joey Grihalva.

A number of Milwaukee County Supervisors have sponsored legislation requesting the state allow the county to sell hard liquor and wine at its parks.

The supervisors are calling on the state Legislature to simply pass statutory language found in a 2015 assembly bill that never made it out of committee. They argue that wine and liquor sales would be a way for the county to generate more revenue on its own since the state has frozen aid, not even keeping pace with inflation.

“Our ability to sell alcoholic beverages is unique in that we are not licensed like a typical bar or restaurant, our ability to sell these products is written in state statute,” said James Tarantino, deputy director of parks. Currently, the county can only legally sell fermented malt beverages, which includes products like beer and hard seltzers.

The 2015 legislation, which was supported by Milwaukee County and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, would have rewritten state statute to allow sales of alcohol. The supervisors resolution asks the county’s office of government affairs to push for passage of the law to the governor, state legislators, the Tavern League of Wisconsin and associations representing the interests of counties and municipalities.

For more than a decade the real dollars decline in state aid has caused the county to cannibalize its land holdings, office space, employee salaries and more in order to maintain its services.

“Milwaukee County at present is on a fiscal trajectory under the state-imposed local government finance restrictions that before the decade’s end, state mandates will consume all of Milwaukee County’s ability to generate revenue locally, leaving no local moneys for ‘non-essential’ services like the Milwaukee County Transit System or Milwaukee County Parks,” the resolution says.

The resolution is sponsored by Supervisors Ryan Clancy, Shawn Rolland, Felesia Martin, Juan Miguel Martinez, Dyango Zerpa, Patti Logsdon and Steve Taylor.

The parks system is one the county’s biggest and most cherished assets, but it’s also a government service that is not legally required by state law. This makes it particularly vulnerable to funding cuts as the county faces ever more drastic budget shortfalls.

The parks department has increasingly become reliant on revenues the department generates on its own through programming and amenities. The department is counting on 52% of its budget this year being revenue the department generates. Beer gardens are one of those revenue sources for the parks.

The supervisors point to The Vine on Humboldt, a county-run beer garden that opened in 2019 with branding to serve wine. The Vine had to stop serving the beverage after it became clear The Vine legally couldn’t do so. The county then sought a liquor license from the City of Milwaukee. It was the first time either local government had been in this situation, a parks official told Urban Milwaukee, and the City of Milwaukee had to deny it because municipalities cannot issue liquor licenses to other municipalities. The county could get around the state restrictions by leasing the beer garden to a private operator, but it would likely have to forego some amount of revenue and control to do so.

The supervisors noted that sales at The Vine generated more than $357,000 in earned revenue from 2019 through 2021.

“We need the state to allow Milwaukee County, and all municipalities, the ability to sell a full beverage menu since we are so heavily reliant on earned revenue to balance our budget,” Tarantino said. “Ultimately it’s kind of silly that we are limited to selling only ‘fermented malt beverages’ to park patrons – what about the people who would rather relax with a glass of wine than a beer?”

The resolution says state law limits the county’s ability to use parks facilities as “wedding venues in naturesque locations, as it is customary for wine and other forms of alcohol to be served at weddings, which will lead prospective finances to go elsewhere, resulting in Milwaukee County losing revenue in future years.”

In the resolution, supervisors are careful to assuage the anxieties of possible opponents to such a change in state law, namely private tavern owners, saying “any opponents need not fear competition from public parks as family park outings and recreational activities where alcohol happens to be sold are different than the clientele who patronize taverns for the purpose of socializing and/or watching sporting events or other forms of entertainment, and parks do not typically operate during the times when most people customarily patronize taverns.”

5 thoughts on “MKE County: Should County Parks Serve Wine, Spirits?”

  1. Thomas Williams says:

    This is a needed source of revenue by the county BUT every story about the lack of funding available to Milwaukee County and its municipalities should begin with a statement which details the percentage of state taxes that go to Madison compared with what is returned via revenue sharing or whatever support offered by the state! Peace TW

  2. JudithAMiller says:

    And how does this proposal mitigate Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s drunk driving rates?

  3. Polaris says:

    The entire State of Wisconsin—including Milwaukee—has a major drinking problem. Back in the day, I didn’t get this until I moved away and saw how big a problem it really is.

    Milwaukee’s parks are underfunded. However, creating even more options for drinking in the area is not a solution—unless, of course, your city, county, and state has a drinking problem.

  4. NieWiederKrieg says:

    People talking and texting on cell phones, inattentive driving, reckless driving, and side effects from prescription medicine cause 500 times more traffic accidents than people who drink and drive.

    40% of the people who pass by in their cars while I’m waiting at a red light are talking on their cell phones… The addiction to texting and talking on cellphones is 50,000% worse in the United States than the addiction to alcohol.

    10%-15% of the people that I see walking around in public have cell phones attached to their face… They are some of the most rude and inconsiderate slobs you’ll ever see.

    Ban cell phones, not delicious German beer.

  5. Polaris says:

    And, then, right after her piece this morning on the can opener (“a tool your kitchen can’t do without!”) Jane Pauley had this great segment on CBS Sunday Morning on vertical farming. I love that, at least for the time being MKE has the tallest (hybrid) mass timber building in the world. But did you know that Jackson, WY has the largest vertical farm in the world.

    C’mon, MKE, you can do better than this! Any ol’ Schmuck can think of selling liquor in parks to support the budget, but MKE can be creative and forward thinking, too!

    Okay, so I’d don’t know if this would work but the point is, this is being touted as a high-return initiative that uses relatively minimal space, helps save the planet, provides produce (lettuces, micro greens, tomatoes, etc.) to cities and their underserved food deserts, and employs residents who are typically employment marginalized. And I suspect these farms could also attract tourists and other sundry visitors.

    Several years ago when people were just beginning to talk about saving Mitchell Park, I advocated for featuring permaculture gardening and other sustainable methods. I mean, why not? Most of MKE’s parks have plenty of space and, if we can use space for sports and picnics, why not something like this, too?

    If not the parks, how about some of those surface parking lots. MKE can help make this a thing just like it did mass timber…

    For cripes, how many brandy old fashioneds can one M’waukean drink?

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