Advocates for a dedicated funding source for Milwaukee County Parks were in the press this week proposing the creation of an independent Milwaukee Park District. Such a move should be seriously considered.
Right now Milwaukee county parks compete for funding with transit, public works, social services, and healthcare and pension costs for current and retired employees. Pitting the parks budget versus committed legacy costs or highly visible departments like public works is not a fair fight. Deferring maintenance on a playing field will take some time to get noticed, stopping garbage pick-up or pension payments will cause immediate uproar and legal action.
To Milwaukee County’s credit pension and healthcare costs (for current and retired employees) are moving in the right direction. However, they still account for 17.3% of total county expenditures. In contrast, park expenditures account for just 3.3% of the total county budget (legacy health and pension costs alone are almost twice the parks budget, $77.9 million).
Likely, the most controversial aspect of a new Milwaukee Park District will be its independent taxing authority. But remember, Milwaukee County voters already passed an advisory referendum on establishing a dedicated sales tax to fund county parks (and transit). Also, a state law establishing an independent Milwaukee Park district could include revenue caps that may only be exceeded via public referendum. Bottom line, a new taxing entity can and should respect local control.
Removing Milwaukee parks from county government would also set an important precedent for other local governments struggling to adequately fund essential services to residents. Imagine what school districts, for example, could do without the array of non-education expenses that too often eat into classroom expenditures. Imagine if cities and counties could focus only on providing services for residents rather than budgeting for promises made in decades past. Surely services would improve.
Public parks contribute to the quality of life of a community, thereby playing a vital role in keeping neighborhoods stable and prosperous. If the percentage of the county tax levy going to Milwaukee parks continues its downward slide Milwaukee’s quality of life will suffer. Creating an accountable independent park district whose sole function is running and funding a parks system is not radical, it’s logical.