Milwaukee County officials are projecting a $10 million budget deficit for the 15,000-acre county parks system this year due to health restrictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. County leaders are hoping that citizen volunteers will — literally — lend a hand.
Despite renewed concerns about COVID-19 over the last two weeks, Milwaukee County continues to reopen facilities at some of its roughly 155 park sites. On July 4, wading pools or splash pads opened at eight parks, including Cooper on Milwaukee's northwest side and Jacobus Park in Wauwatosa.
A quick visit to those two parks showed relatively small crowds, but the families who were there seemed happy at getting a break from the heat.
But the county park system typically counts on revenue from user fees and sales for 60% of its operating budget. With large pools, softball leagues and some other offerings still shut down, not enough money is coming in. On the spending side, many of the 240 full-time parks workers have had hours cut and more than 700 seasonal positions have been trimmed.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley says he's aware of citizen concerns.
"We know we've been getting complaints about not enough of the trash being picked up or some of the bathrooms being closed. But that's because we don't have the resources to hire individuals to clean those bathrooms, to make sure we're minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” Crowley told WUWM.
Crowley and other county officials have just started a Love Your Parks campaign. Volunteers are being urged to help with trash pickup, make donations to the Milwaukee Parks Foundation, share stories about why the parks are essential, and even buy a new parks-themed beer to support the foundation's efforts.
County taxes make up 40% of the parks operating budget. But Crowley says it's too early to talk a tax increase for the parks or for the overall county budget.
"I mean right now, we're still figuring out the impact COVID-19 is going to have on the budget. So, we won't know more of that until later on this summer. But we're going to work with Milwaukee County supervisors. We're going to work with the community to provide the critical services we need to continue,” Crowley said.
Crowley says he and the parks department are also working on creating a grants office that could bring in state, federal or foundation dollars.
It's an uncertain time for local parks that have supplied beautiful scenery and recreation for at least 130 years.