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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Public invited to help puzzle out future funding for Milwaukee County Parks

A bit of tree canopy in Washington Park, one of Milwaukee County's treasures. -
Susan Bence
A bit of tree canopy in Washington Park, one of Milwaukee County's treasures.

There is no easy fix to set Milwaukee County’s many parks on solid financial footing. We’ve been hearing for years about what to do about deferred maintenance of the beloved Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservancy, or as many know it, The Domes.

Late last week during a virtual community conversation, Milwaukee County’s Parks director said it's time to consider novel approaches to create sustainable funding.

As in so many wickedly challenging topics these days, the COVID-19 pandemic came up during the save our Milwaukee County parks community meeting.

Parks director Guy Smith said the pandemic had silver linings. People sought out green space in droves, five brand new parks friends groups came to life, and despite their diminished numbers, parks staff- pitched in.

“Mowing, picking litter etc., and just trying to keep our parks going. It was all hands on deck. In 2020 we were only able to bring on 185 seasonal staff, when in a normal year we would upwards of 900,” Smith said. “We were only able to bring on staff to bring in revenue.”

But parks revenue generated by marinas, golf courses and roving biergartens can’t fill the gap left by diminishing tax levy dollars.

Milwaukee County Parks director of administration and planning Jeremy Lucas calls the parks financial predicament dire.

“In the spring of 2021 the [county] executive warned there may be not property tax levy available to support the parks by 2027 tax levy, that’s not very far. So it’s time to plan and address this critical issue and thankfully we have a resource like the Wisconsin Policy Forum,” Lucas said.

In October 2021 the Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report commissioned by Milwaukee County.

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

Its title, Sinking Treasures, doesn’t instantly conjure up optimism. But policy forum president Rob Henken told meeting attendees that looking at how other cities or counties address challenges might help chart the course of managing Milwaukee’s park system.

Take the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, “There’s an elected board of commissioners that has its own tax levy authority. Another important standout element is that they group those revenue-generating amenities in what is called an enterprise fund. There is a requirement that collectively, those amenities will not require property tax support. That leaves the levy solely to the parks upkeep and the other general amenities that are not generating revenue,” Henken explained.

One of the examples of parks funding formula in Sinking Treasures report
Wisconsin Policy Forum
One of the examples of parks funding formula in Sinking Treasures report

The Minneapolis model and others Henken outlined would require state authorization, meaning the legislature would have to OK the change.

Other strategies would not require state approval, including partnering with school districts such as MPS to enhance park programming or another idea altogether, which Henken called "a land and water governance perspective."

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum
Part of Rob Henken's Wisconsin Policy Forum presentation at recent public meeting on how to create a sustainably funded Milwaukee County Parks system.

"Essentially, what this is saying is that we have a Metropolitan Sewerage District that essentially functions as an environmental protection agency. What if MMSD had a more robust and enhanced relationship with Milwaukee County Parks? Particularly with regard to entire parks or portions of parks that are mostly or are exclusively passive uses and what if there was a new joint governance structure for either those portions of parks or perhaps some entire parks themselves," Henken mused.

Participants were given small chunks of time to share their thoughts in small groups. Britta Endres of Whitefish Bay shared her thoughts.

“I like the idea of partnering with the sewer district. Yeah, I think that’s just a really novel idea,” Endres said. “I would be hesitant on the idea of partnering with the school district. I just feel like school district already seems like it’s struggling for funding, so I feel like putting the school district in an even worse position and not really helping the parks.”

Mequon resident Barbara Frank dug into the Wisconsin Policy Forum report before last week's meeting. Frank said she talks with anyone who will listen about the importance of green space, especially for people whose parks are their respite from largely paved environments.

"The parks district has had so many municipal parks turned over to it through the years. I do think it would be appropriate to turn some of them back to the municipalities," Franks said. "I think breaking out the Domes and Boerner, for example, to be separate entities would be very helpful, and working with MMSD seems to me, in certain ones, makes a great deal of sense."

Jeremy Ebersole contributed this thought:

“It feels like the idea of carving out the regional attractions like the Domes into some kind of a separate entity might be a way forward that would be advantageous to the Domes,” he said.

READ County officials express frustration, others determination to save The Domes at parks committee meeting

Ebersole heads Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. It advocates for restoring the nationally recognized horticultural conservatory and the southside 61-acre Mitchell Park that holds it. But Ebersole believes it's equally important to involve the public in those deliberations as Milwaukee County continues the difficult task of writing the next chapter of the entire parks system.

"I wish I knew more about the next steps and exactly how the public will continue to be involved in this process and, how the final decisions are actually going to be made, who will be making those decisions. There's a lot more to know about how we're going forward," Ebersole said.

Attendees were asked to complete an online survey.

Parks director Guy Smith told WUWM the survey will remain open for public input until Sept. 9.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum will then step back in, digging deeper into the most popular strategies to explore the costs and steps needed to implement them. The forum’s follow-up report will be available in time for the county’s 2024 budget deliberations.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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