Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Parks Fees Increasing

Parks system stays afloat - barely - with money making services that provide half its budget.

By - Oct 25th, 2022 09:25 am
Greenfield Park Golf Course. File photo by Dave Reid.

Greenfield Park Golf Course. File photo by Dave Reid.

Milwaukee County residents will once again see fees for a number of parks amenities increase in 2023.

Golf fees for standard rounds are expected to increase from $1 to $2. The golf season pass will increase $25, and golf cart rentals will increase by $1. McKinley Marina boat slip fees are increasing 3%. Admission to Boerner Botanical Gardens and the Mitchell Park Domes are both increasing; and various room and venue rentals will see rates go up, as well.

The budget for county parks has been flat for decades. “We’ve basically had a $40 million budget for the past 30 years,” Jeremy Lucas, director of administration and planning, told the board’s budget committee in October.

In County Executive David Crowley‘s recommended 2023 budget, the parks budget is approximately $41.8 million. But the cost to operate and maintain the system has not stayed the same, rising annually with inflation. The parks system does not have a dedicated funding source and relies on property tax revenues to maintain its operations.

But the county doesn’t have enough property tax revenue to adequately fund the parks system and the rest of county services given the financial struggles of county government as a whole. Given this reality, the parks system has increasingly had to generate its own funding through services and amenities it can charge for. Currently, the majority of the parks operations budget — more than 50% — is generated by the department.

New parks amenities, like the beer gardens, have proven successful revenue generators since the first one opened in 2013. The gardens did $2.6 million worth of business in 2021, according to parks.

Golf is another parks amenity that has become critical to the department’s budget. The fall of 2020 was unseasonably warm, allowing golfers to play longer into the year, which helped the department close a budget deficit by year’s end. The department, in recent years, has been purchasing more golf carts to rent out and building more cart paths in a bid to wring as much money from the golf courses as possible.

The money parks makes from golf carts has been so reliable that the department went before the board asking for funding to purchase 46 golf carts in March 2021, explaining that it would use the revenue from rentals to pay for additional seasonal workers that summer.

Patronage of the public courses by golfers in Milwaukee County has also been outpacing the department’s expectations in recent years. In the 2023 budget, the department is increasing the estimate number of rounds of golf it expects will be played.

The fee increases for golf and other parks amenities are part of the balancing act the department plays as it tries to support itself while still maintaining unfettered public access.

We recognize in a large urban system like this, you can’t charge for everything,” Lucas said, “And then many of the parts of our park system like the trails, open area parks, community centers are just you know, vital to the quality of life.”

With the department operating a make-or-break budget that relies on revenue generating activities, like a for-profit business, rather than dedicated public funding, fee hikes will likely to continue to occur.

The increases recommended for 2023 are expected to grow the earned revenue for the system by approximately $237,000, with $116,00 of that coming from golf. Overall, the parks system earned revenue is expected to increase by nearly $1 million in 2023.

The system has 15,301 acres of parkland, 156 parks and 215 miles of public trails. But in the last 30 years, the department has seen its staff tasked with maintaining and programming these amenities shrink by 56%. Where there were once more than 1,000 parks employees taking care of the system, there are now fewer than 500.

In its 2021 report titled “Sinking Treasure,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum calculated that, when adjusted for inflation, the parks department budget has shrunk by 51% since 1989.

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

One thought on “MKE County: County Parks Fees Increasing”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    The goal of funding parks through self-generated revenues is an ill-conceived concept introduced under the Abele Administration that will inevitably result in park use being limited by a family’s financial means; a notion contrary to the values held by those of us who believe that parks should be open and accessible and enjoyed by all our citizens regardless of income.

    While revenues from beer gardens, golf courses and their like are helpful in supplementing our park system’s survival, they are hardly the answer to maintaining our county’s wilting “green necklace” of parks, parkways and trails. What is part of the answer lies in the Republican controlled legislature returning a FAIR share of the revenues we pay to the State of Wisconsin.

    We’d all do well to remember that on election day.

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