Our starved parks

The park's financial troubles: their share of the county tax levy fell from 31% to 9.9% between 1980 and 2000, and park staffs were cut by two-thirds. And the downward trend has continued. Economies have included fee increases, pool closings, elimination of lifeguards, no more stocking of fish in lagoons.

Badly needed is a dedicated funding source that can't be raided to help cover state-mandated expenses and rising costs of other County programs. Two remedies are being discussed:

  1. A half-percent sales tax assessment, like the one for the Miller Park stadium, and
  2. A separate self-funding parks district.

County voters in the 2008 election gave a rousing YES to a penny boost in the current sales tax to provide more funding for County parks and recreation, the transit system, emergency services and property tax relief. As the referendum was advisory, the measure requires positive action by the State Legislature, the Governor and the County Board (which supported the referendum).

Because of differing versions of the 2009 budget, the sales tax amount needed to be sorted out by a joint Senate-Assembly committee. The Senate version, which used the language of the referendum passed by voters of Milwaukee County and included allocations for parks, transit and emergency services. The Assembly version omitted parks.
The joint committee chose the Assembly version, which ignored park funding, and that was what went to Governor Doyle –- who vetoed the sales tax increase for Milwaukee County, saying he preferred a regional transit authority.

Because so much work on the budget was done in the shadows, it’s difficult to single out the legislators from Milwaukee County who defied the will of the County voters.

Our thanks to the legislators who took the lead in supporting more parks funding through a sales tax: State Senator Lena Taylor, State Representative Pedro Colon and State Representative Tamara Grigsby.

Responding to pressure from constituents irked by shunning of the referendum mandate, some local legislators have contacted us about what they can do about Milwaukee County Park funding in the form of legislative bills for either a half percent sales tax dedicated only to parks or a separate park district for Milwaukee County Parks which would stabilize funding initially and over time provide more funds.  The obvious stumbling block at this time is the sentiment of the Governor and key local legislators.  Steps are being taken to persuade the Governor of the critical need for dedicated funding for our parks before they erode even further.