Sinking Treasure

November 10, 2021

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, called 'SInking Treasure' outlines the financial challenges facing the Milwaukee County Parks, and investigates possible solutions for long-term funding solutions.

Th report highlights county parks as the region’s most pressing area of infrastructure neglect. The report found the county should be spending $39 million annually to repair and replace parks assets based on current needs, but the parks had received an average of only about $9.6 million annually in capital funds during the preceding five years.

These challenges would appear to constitute an urgent call for action. Yet, despite growing public awareness of the problem highlighted by voter approval of a 2008 advisory referendum supporting a dedicated sales tax for the parks, they continue to compete with other county functions for finite property tax revenues and limited borrowing capacity as their unmet operating and capital needs grow.

It now appears that action cannot be delayed any longer. In the spring of 2021, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley warned that if current trends and projections regarding county salaries and fringe benefit costs continue, then there may be no property tax levy available to support the parks by 2027. Such a development likely would necessitate a dismantling of the Milwaukee County park system at a time when open space and recreational resources have been valued more than ever by county residents during the pandemic.

The report begins by reviewing the history of Milwaukee County’s financial support for its parks and reassessing the parks department’s current financial condition and challenges. It then explores funding and governance models used by peer park systems and concludes by summarizing the potential to consider elements of those models for Milwaukee County.

The findings of this report will be considered by parks stakeholders and the public, with an eye toward identifying a handful of specific new partnerships and governance models that merit further analysis as options to help Milwaukee County create a financially sustainable parks system that will meet the needs and expectations of its residents. A subsequent report will flesh out those models so they may be considered by policymakers as part of a long-term vision and plan for the Milwaukee County Parks.

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