MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee County Parks are facing a financial crisis. Some public spaces are showing signs of neglect and county leaders say the current funding structure can't support staffing needs, major maintenance, or repairs.
Here's a pretty stark example — the operating budget for Milwaukee County Parks has not grown in 30 years. In fact, it's projected to keep shrinking and by 2027 local dollars for local priorities are projected to dry up. "Each county park employee is responsible for managing about 28 Lambeau Fields worth of land," said Becky Stoner, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Co. Parks Foundation, as she explained the ripple effect on staffing. "So, we're in this really unsustainable position and it's not getting better."
Staffing is one thing, but infrastructure needs add another piece to the puzzle. "We're at about $500 million in deferred maintenance," explained Guy Smith, the Executive Director of Milwaukee County Parks. "That's just the parks department alone, that's not Milwaukee County as a whole."
Milwaukee's domes need about $60 million worth of work, and fixing lakefront erosion from Bayview Park to South Shore is another expensive item on the to-do list. For many years, the bridge at Lake Park over the ravine road has been closed because of needed repair. And Bender Boat Launch is sinking in silt. The redesign has a price tag of about $7 million.
By law, tax dollars have to first go to state-mandated services and the parks department is not in that category. Smith says a dire timeline is becoming clear. "We do hit a fiscal cliff in 2027, which means — like say within parks, the only things that would remain are revenue-producing things because the tax levy wouldn't be there."
The revenue primarily comes from golf courses, beer gardens, and McKinley Marina. So, why not lean into that? The money could never shore up the gap. And county leaders agree that focusing only on revenue-rich areas will not support amenities that each part of the community needs and deserves.
"We want to be intentional in our investments in parks spaces, especially in communities of color," underlined David Crowley, Milwaukee County Executive. "We believe it is paramount because we know that historically we haven't been making the investments that we want to see."
Crowley joined county leaders in asking the Wisconsin Policy Forum to analyze the park's financial issues and it led to a report titled 'Sinking Treasure'.
"What was simply remarkable is that the size of the Parks Dept. budget in 2019 was virtually identical to the size of the budget in 1989," said Rob Henken, president of Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Land, amenities and expectations have grown over the past 30 years but the budget has not. When asked about the fastest way toward meaningful change Smith replied, "Well, I'd like to say we could snap our fingers and we'd have the sales tax — but that's going to take time." And time is running out.
"There have been some grand solutions that have been discussed for decades," added Henken. "The catch here is that they would require new revenue sources that would necessitate approval by the state of Wisconsin, the legislature and the governor." WPC will soon launch Phase Two of the 'Sinking Treasure' study, focusing on the feasibility of a narrow list of options that won't involve legislative approval. Some of the options are in conceptual stages — like new partnerships with Milwaukee Public Schools or the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District.
'Sinking Treasure' also explores unique solutions in a handful of peer cities and governments, some of which could work in Milwaukee County. "I believe it was Seattle where the parks were still within the city, under the purview of the Parks Department, but they created a separate district — a park district that just would help create funds that then could go into that park system," said Smith.
In Milwaukee County Smith pointed to filling staffing holes as the most pressing problem and said without some type of intervention, residents will start to notice. "This might sound simple — but we're not able to empty the garbage as often or we might not have restrooms open or our mowing cycles are going to be longer."
If you want to do your part to help taking action can be simple, and rewarding. Visit any park, pick up trash, and snap a picture. Then post it on Instagram and use the hashtag #mkebrewhero. Local breweries and coffee shops have donated prizes. For a chance to collect them, make sure you register online to become a Brew Hero.
Parks advocates want to encourage residents to get involved in the budget discussion and say each voice matters and can have a lot of impact when you show up to events and meetings. Visit the Projects HQ page to get the latest updates on park projects and provide your input.
Another way to get informed and get involved is to join one of the "Friends Groups." There are dozens, each focusing on a specific park — helping do volunteer work, raise awareness and raise money.