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Legislature turns its back on the bill to aid ailing parks.

Well, the Legislature has stuck it to Milwaukee again. In addition to other failures on bills that would have benefited the area, the Legislature turned its back on a bill that would have permitted an increase of ½% in the sales tax to provide dedicated funding for Milwaukee County’s ailing parks and the cultural institutions subsidized by the County, such as the Zoo. Plus, it would have returned part of the take to reduce property taxes. The idea had been passed in a recent County referendum, but unfortunately the vote was only advisory.

So efforts of Preserve Our Parks, The Park People and the Public Park Alliance, recently formed by the two nonprofits as a political arm to push for positive parks legislation, are turning to convincing lawmakers to authorize separate park districts that would have independent governing boards and their own taxing authority.

Our thanks go to State Representatives Christine Sinicki and Jon Richards, both from Milwaukee, and th handful of others that supported the parks bil l(AB 504) in the State Assembly. Our parks would have benefited greatly from the funding increase and an estimated $38 million would have eased property taxes in Milwaukee County.

(This was a move endorsed by Milwaukee County voters in a referendum in late 2008, but the Legislature failed to follow through. The approved referendum was to permit a 1% sale tax increase, with the other half earmarked for transit improvements; the Legislature is considering the transit upgrade separately now.)

As Richards noted, in the mid-1980s, the Milwaukee County Parks budget was $45 million. To keep up with inflation, that would be $88 million today. Instead, the current parks budget is down $2 million from the earlier figure – and a 20% cut has been urged by County Executive Scott Walker for next year. Richards also says parks staffing is anemic: 3 parks workers per 100 acres of parkland. In Chicago, the figure is 41 per 100 acres.

Supporters of AB 504 nearly filled the room in which the Assembly Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the bill recently. Speakers passionately outlined how closely our parks are intertwined with Milwaukee's history and culture, how parks benefit our local economy and property values and, most significantly, how parks affect the quality of life for all residents.

In early January, the Ways and Means Committee voted 6-4 along party lines (Democrats in favor, Republicans against) to recommend AB 504 for consideration by the full chamber, but that never happened.

In your next conversation with your State Representative, emphasize the importance of increased funding for Milwaukee County Parks in the next Legislative session.

And contributions to the Public Parks Alliance to help fund efforts toward that goal are necessary and appreciated. Contribute via Preserve Our Parks, 1845 N. Farwell Ave., Suite 100, Milwaukee, WI 53202, noting “PPAcontribution” in the memo line of your check. PPA contributions are not tax deductible.