'The Model Is Broken As It Currently Stands': Milwaukee County Parks Director On The State Of Parks Funding
Last year around this time, all Milwaukee County Park buildings were closed, pools were shut and even playgrounds were taped off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This season, golf courses are open, beer gardens are coming back, some pools and splash pads are open and even some outdoor concerts are returning.
However, this is being done in an already severely strained system. Just 75 lifeguards out of a typical 200 are working, and only about a fourth of what is usually 900 seasonal staff are currently working. Guy Smith, the executive director of the Milwaukee County Parks, says the park system has become increasingly reliant on fee-based services to operate, with only about $1.50 a month per Milwaukeean being invested in parks through taxes.
Smith says the current model is not serving the parks system effectively and has begun the process of exploring new funding models with the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
“The model is broken as it currently stands,” he says.
It’s not just a struggle to pay for operating costs but the $500 million worth of maintenance projects across the county that need to be addressed, according to Smith.
“This year in 2021 we were able to get $8 million in capital projects, which is a start but a long way to go,” he says.
While the pandemic was a brutal financial hit to Milwaukee County Parks, Smith says it showed how important open green spaces are to communities across Milwaukee. The pandemic saw record highs for all outdoor activities across Wisconsin and while those extreme highs are unlikely to continue, more people have been exposed to the outdoor spaces the county has to offer.
“Parks really showed themselves in the pandemic and us trying to climb out of the pandemic, how important parks and open space and green space are for our physical and mental health,” he says.
In moving forward, Smith says it’s important to find a funding model that doesn’t leave out low-income or historically underrepresented areas in Milwaukee so that parks are working to bring more equity instead of further segregation.
Smith asks that Milwaukeeans get involved by helping to give a voice to the parks. “Speaking to their elected officials, advocating for local revenue options, asking that their tax dollars can be returned to the community through shared revenue, advocating for a dedicated funding source for the parks,” he outlines.
Without a new model or increased revenue outside of fee-based services, Smith says only the profitable parts of the parks system will remain — something not healthy for the system.
“To have an appropriate parks system that our ancestors were so smart in protecting along the lakefront and the riverways and everything, I mean we’re so lucky here in Milwaukee, you have to have to have everything, including the things that are not revenue producing,” he says.