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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin Policy Forum report looks at possible solutions for Milwaukee County Parks financial woes

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report explores a variety of funding approaches, including whether facilities like the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory be considered a 'regional amenity' and have its own financial structure separate from the Milwaukee County Parks system.
Michelle Maternowski
A Wisconsin Policy Forum report explores a variety of funding approaches for the Milwaukee County Parks system, including whether facilities like the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory be considered a 'regional amenity' and have its own separate financial structure.

As Milwaukee County continues to struggle with how to keep its network of parks financially afloat, the Wisconsin Policy Forum released its report Sinking Treasureto try to get closer to solutions.

This is not the Forum’s first look at the Milwaukee County Parks' system challenges. Forum president Rob Henken said for years county leaders and residents have discussed the creation of a dedicated funding source for the parks.

“In fact there was an advisory referendum on this back in 2008 that was approved by voters. That is something that would require state authorization. Counties beyond the half-cent sales tax don’t have the authority to go any higher,” Henken explained.

The idea has gone nowhere. “Over the last 30 years the legislature has not been inclined to give that authorization to Milwaukee County leaders,” Henken said.

Screenshot taken by Susan Bence
President Rob Henken spoke with WUWM's Susan Bence about Wisconsin Policy Forum's recent report "Sinking Treasure."

This time around, the Forum explored how other cities and counties finance their public green spaces:

  • Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is an independent park district with an elected board of commissioners and its own property tax level authorized by state statute. An enterprise fund houses revenue-generating amenities, including golf courses and ice skating facilities.
  • Cleveland Metroparks is an independent park district governed by a three-member board of commissioners appointed by a probate judge and financed by a property tax levy granted by the state and its voters. Community organizations provide programming within the parks from summer camps to natural sciences and history.
  • Dane County Parks is a division of Dane County’s Land and Resources Department. Financial resources are shared within the department depending on the project and program needs. Friend groups and other volunteers provide programming. 
  • Seattle Park District is governed by a board of commissioners made up of Seattle City Council members. A property tax levy built into Washington state law provides a dedicated financing mechanism for the park district’s operating and capital needs.
  • Sonoma County Regional Parks (CA) are county-owned and administered. In 2018 voters approved an 1/8 cent sales tax to fund the parks. Two-thirds of the funds flow to county parks; the remaining third is shared by nine city parks systems within the county.
  • Madison Parks Division falls under the umbrella of the city’s Department of Public Works, and is overseen by a superintendent and two assistant superintendents who report to an appointed park commissioners board. Parks offer limited programming; while community organization partners, notably Madison School & Community Recreation, offer additional recreational and enrichment opportunities. Partners pay a fee to use parks and facilities to help offset maintenance and utility costs of those spaces.

Henken said the report does not point to any one of the approaches as a remedy for Milwaukee County. “There were few elements from some of these models. I don’t think there’s a model that we would say, ‘Yes, this is the one Milwaukee County should do,' but we thought there were some very intriguing elements that haven’t been looked at before."

The report suggests partnership building as a strong near-term option, pointing to Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District as an existing partner.

“For flood control purposes, which already does a lot of environmental protection in greater Milwaukee... maybe seeing whether they could play a greater role in terms of doing some of this environmental and habitat protection and flood control activity. [It would help] relieve the parks department of that [responsibility] and free up more of its resources for more of the recreational elements,” Henken said.

Over the last three decades, Milwaukee County Parks’ revenue stream has shifted. Henken said in 1989, the property tax levy made up 74% of the budget, with the remainder generated by revenue including pavilion rentals and golf fees. “Move ahead 30 years, and now those earned revenues are slightly greater than half of the revenue mix, ” Henken said.

Henken calls the shift "a good and a bad news story."

>>Milwaukee County Beer Gardens Bring In Money, More Visitors To Parks

While new sources of revenue have emerged such as traveling and permanent beer gardens, some worry charging people to enjoy county parks amenities runs the risk of limiting public access to the parks.

Estabrook Park beer garden
Marti Mikkelson
Estabrook Park beer garden

“Milwaukee County has declared eradicating racial inequities as its foremost priority. And so to the extent that you want to look at the parks through a racial equity lens and a public health lens, where ideally [Milwaukee County parks] would have unfettered public access for citizens of all socioeconomic levels. To [say] that you’re going to be more reliant on fees, this may conflict with those goals,” Henken said.

Henken hopes several of the ideas included in the Forum report will rise to the top. Those ideas then need in-depth exploration.

“We're standing by to do that additional research analysis, that potential could take a smaller set of options closer to the decision-making stage,” Henken said.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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