I-TEAM: Parks department relies on wheel tax for bailout in $2.5M budget crunch

Posted at 7:24 PM, Nov 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-02 12:45:26-04
A new wheel tax would bail the parks department out of a multi-million dollar shortfall, but the I-TEAM has learned the same department operating "in the red" is spending thousands on trips and making hundreds of retail purchases. 
You wanted to know whether the department is looking at its own spending before asking taxpayers for more money to balance their budget. 
The I-TEAM's Eric Ross asked Milwaukee County Parks Director John Dargle,"If the wheel tax doesn't pass and that's no longer on the table, how are you going to get the parks department out of the budget crisis? 
"That's a good question," Dargle said. 
The parks department currently faces a $2.5 million shortfall. 
The majority of the department's $44 million operating budget is spent on facilities, maintenance and employees. 
"$2.5 million could mean closing facilities," Dargle added. "It could be raising fees by 10-percent to generate an additional $1 million. It could mean eliminating staff." 
To prevent this from happening, Dargle supports charging all Milwaukee County drivers a new wheel tax fee. 
At first, the proposal centered around a $60 fee, but the finance committee axed that plan and instead, approved a $30 fee. 
The proposal is currently in the hands of County Executive Chris Abele and the finance committee. The fee has not yet been finalized.   
"There are no other legal alternatives we have that can come close to getting enough revenue to keep us sustainable," Abele said. "Sales tax isn't legal by state law and we're capped on how much we can raise property taxes." 
Park users like Tiferet Berenbaum wonders if something else can be done without asking taxpayers for help. 
"I mean living right here, I benefit from so many wonderful parks and I wouldn't want to see them go away," she said. "Certainly seeing how money is currently being spent should be the first avenue before looking for more money." 
Ultimately, Berenbaum said if it comes down to it, she would be OK with paying the wheel tax fee for park improvements. 
"Two-thirds of our capitol projects are relying on that vehicle registration fee," Dargle said. "We've got trails, parkways and bridges relying on that vehicle registration fee." 
While the department waits for help, the I-TEAM requested credit card expense reports from January of 2015 through August of 2016 when the wheel tax fee was first publicly announced. 
In those expense reports, the I-TEAM found the parks department spent more than $36,000 at retailers like Menards, Office Depot, The Home Depot and Best Buy. 
We asked Dargle whether they could have saved money by purchasing from wholesale stores instead of retail establishments. 
"Some of the purchases that you're referring to are maybe one purchase, or a unique item that particular retailer has," Dargle explained. 
We counted and found over a 20-month period, park employees made a total of 284 purchases at Menards and The Home Depot.  
"It could be a good deal that we're able to get by going to a Best Buy for instance for TV's at our clubhouses," he said.
The parks department said a $1,700 expense at Best Buy we inquired about was indeed for TV's at its clubhouses. The parks department also pays for those TV's to be equipped with DirecTV service. 
We also found the department spent close to $2,000 on table covers for a golf show and nearly $10,000 on travel and hotel expenses. Dargle explained trips to Wisconsin Dells and Las Vegas were business-related. 
We asked Dargle, "Is there anything on that list (expense reports) that stands out to you that may be a questionable expense?" 
"No," Dargle replied. 
Dargle reiterated all expenses we inquired about are justified. 
It's important to note that even if the department didn't send employees to conferences and stopped making retail purchases, the department would only save tens of thousands of dollars which doesn't come close to the $2.5 million gap. 
So where did the department come up short? 
Dargle blames the deficit partially on a loss of parking contract revenue from O'Donnell Park and loss of Transit Center revenue. 
Parking at O'Donnell Park took in net profits of nearly $1.5 million each year. The Transit Center generated an additional $88,000 in revenue in 2008, according to the parks department. 
In order to generate new revenue, the parks department is raising certain fees associated with park services, which is expected to raise $100,000 a year. 
The department is also taking over the Beer Garden at Root River Parkway near Whitnall Park. Dargle said this will also generate another $100,000 in revenue per year. 
If approved, the $30 wheel tax fee will be part of the county budget the full board will approve Nov. 7. 
You can review the following expense reports TODAY'S TMJ4 requested by clicking on the following links: