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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee County Parks funding raises tension around equity at committee meeting

swing set
Chuck Quirmbach
Playground at Indigenous People's Park in Milwaukee in 2020.

Milwaukee County’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee held its regular monthly meeting Tuesday, but the conversation was anything but regular.

When discussion turned to the daunting challenge of addressing years of deferred maintenance throughout the county parks system, tension arose.

The meeting started off harmoniously. Supervisor Peter Burgelis, of District 15, proposed naming the road cutting through Washington Park “Olmsted Way” in honor of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“Previous to his designing parks across the country, including Central Park in New York City, parks were plentiful in the U.S. but they were private. Olmsted introduced the idea that parks should be shared public spaces.” Burgelis added, “We can honor that, and reaffirm that commitment in Milwaukee County by renaming this roadway Olmsted Way.”

Committee members responded with a resounding yes, but as attention turned to the cost of keeping, or in many cases returning, Milwaukee County’s 157 parks to tiptop condition, unity frayed.

In 2019, a nonprofit called Milwaukee Parks Foundation formed to help.

Separate from but created to support county parks, the foundation’s board includes business and philanthropic leaders.

Rebecca Stoner, who came aboard as executive director in 2021, said so far the foundation has raised over $500,000. “One current project we’re working on, we’re partnering with the Friends of Rose Park and The Park People, redoing a mural that is significantly deteriorated at the Rose Park Senior Center,” Stoner explained.

Money has been set aside to maintain the mural. Another project the foundation is working on is investing over $50,000 into painting and revitalizing seven basketball courts in 2022, she said. This project also folds in maintenance funds.

She continued, “We are also partnering with Running Rebels to run a 3v3 tournament at one of these repainted courts in September to celebrate.”

Committee member Supervisor Steve Taylor represents Franklin and Oak Creek. He expressed concern that parks in those communities won’t benefit from money raised by the foundation.

“When you talk about equity and the amount of money that the southern portion sends to Milwaukee County in terms of tax dollars and what we get back in return is not equal. So, I understand these are separate but when you tell me that the focus in Milwaukee, once again – suburbs, not feeling the love,” he said.

Stoner acknowledged Taylor’s frustration, but said the nongovernmental organization has to prioritize too.

“We use [the county’s equity index] as one of our guiding tools for making the decision. Does that mean that we will never invest in suburban parks? No, but it does mean that a focus of our parks are those that rank high on the equity index which happen to fall in primarily the city of Milwaukee,” she said.

When Taylor pushed back, saying he might need to come back with his own equity index. “For municipalities that ship a bunch of money downtown in property taxes and don’t get it back, so maybe I have to consider how to create that,” he said.

Fellow committee member Supervisor Felesia Martin, of District 7, felt obliged to speak out. “As a Black woman, I sit next to you and I’m offended by your words,” she said.

Martin represents an assortment of Milwaukee neighborhoods, from West Silver Spring Drive to West Meinecke Avenue.

“We want all communities, suburb, urban, rural – you name it – we want everyone to get their fair share, but when it comes to people of color, we have never got our fair share and we deserve it. Actually, we are entitled to it. We paid in blood, sweat and tears and if you want to call it entitlement, gosh darn it, your damn straight, we’re entitled to it,” Martin said.

Emotions cooled and the agenda moved on, but as the meeting closed Martin returned to the topic of parks.

She urged residents to “make a ruckus” in support of every inch of greenspace within Milwaukee County. “We know that living in a concrete jungle lends itself to a lot of angst and anxiety. Greenspaces lends itself to mental wellbeing. As a voter you’re the most powerful person in any room that you sit in. And that’s what I would love all of us to do – to make certain that we are raising our voices at a state and county level and making certain we are listening and holding people accountable,” Martin said.

Late this summer, residents will have the opportunity to share their views at a virtual public meeting. The August 25 event bears a discouraging title – "Sinking Treasure."

It’s the name of a Wisconsin Public Policy Forum report, released in 2021, that examined the ways Milwaukee County might rescue the parks system.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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