With a shrinking staff and budget, rising costs and more challenges looming, Milwaukee County Parks finds itself in an unenviable situation.
“We do a good job for the revenue that we do produce, but we need new funding sources so that we can continue to provide green spaces like trails that are free to the public,” said Guy Smith, executive director of Milwaukee County Parks, which oversees 15,300 acres of land and 157 parks. “Obviously, the pandemic was a major struggle for everyone, but what it did really lay bare was that you can’t use bubble gum and string to keep things together.”
Smith referred to the challenges his department faced over the summer when trail usage increased by 60 percent as more individuals looked at the parks as a safe reprieve from COVID-19 as well as an escape from home.
His department employed only 280 seasonal workers during that time — well short of the 900 needed to maintain the parks, he said. There’s also $500 million in deferred maintenance that needs to get done, he added.
The pandemic is just the latest challenge faced by a department that, despite inflation, has seen its budget remain stagnant since 1989, resulting in staff cuts, maintenance delays and limited investment in capital projects.
A dire prediction
A report issued in October by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan policy research organization, outlined those and other challenges. It warned that things could get even worse unless leaders find larger and more diverse income streams.
Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and an author of the report titled “Sinking Treasure: A look at Milwaukee County Parks’ troubled finances and potential solutions,” said a decrease in money received from tax levies has created fiscal challenges for three decades.
In 1989, he said, 74 percent of funds for the parks system came from property taxes, compared with 43 percent now.
“Competition for the levy has grown exponentially,” Henken said. “It’s not that parks are a lower priority than the courts or the jail or patrolling the expressway, but it’s because parks are discretionary in nature, and something has to be cut.”
The report states that the parks are more reliant on revenue earned from amenities, including rental fees, golf courses, aquatics and other resources.
Smith said the county does a good job of pouring earned revenue back into the budget, but not all attractions cover their costs, and they don’t generate nearly enough revenue to fund the many free park services.
“The historic mission of the parks system is to support a quality community and place where you can work or live by providing free access to green space and other amenities,” Smith said. “Not everything that we do can bring in funding.”
Proposed spending plans for capital projects that are in the $30 million to $45 million range from 2022 to 2025 exacerbate the problems as they are much higher than the average of $8 million budgeted over the past nine years. Those numbers also don’t include the vast capital needed to renovate the iconic Mitchell Park Domes.
Saving The Domes
Bill Lynch, chairman of the Milwaukee County Task Force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes, said his group’s plan to save The Domes and improve Mitchell Park, laid out in 2019, hasn’t moved forward.
“The county discontinued any activity with preservation or implementation of the plan, which may be more feasible now than in 2019,” Lynch said.
Leaders created the task force after falling debris in the Desert Dome in 2016 closed the attraction and raised additional safety and sustainability concerns about the aging structures, which were built in 1955.
The task force supported a $66 million plan to renovate The Domes and add amenities at Mitchell Park, an estimate Lynch says was too high. It was to be paid for by a combination of private sector, county and tax preservation dollars.
He said the task force’s plan would have made the Mitchell Park Domes, which hasn’t generated a profit in many years, and other projects self-sustainable.
Lynch hopes that a new task force created by the county to resume his group’s work will do something before it’s too late. That group, which consists of representatives from the Parks Department, Department of Administrative Services and others, met with members of the county’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee in September.
The group said the 2019 cost estimates were outdated, estimates on available tax credits were incorrect, not enough non-debt equity was proposed for the project, and that revenue projections based on attendance and sales were speculative.
The group is expected to share findings from an independent analysis of proposed revenue sources with the committee in the coming months. Meanwhile, several projects, including work on the stainless steel mesh around the interior of The Domes and other repairs are ongoing.
Lynch said there is some good news: Testing found that concrete in The Domes is sound, which raises hope that the structures will be saved.
“I think it would be devastating to the neighborhood around the park if The Domes were allowed to go along the way that the county handled the Coast Guard Station off of Lincoln Memorial Drive,” he said.
“Leaving a nonfunctional large glass structure looming over the park would contribute to its perception as an unsafe and unattractive place to be.”