Friday 22nd September 2017 

Milwaukee County is considering a resolution that could ultimately lead to the unstringing of our emerald necklace of parklands. The resolution, adopted 2-1 this week by the  Milwaukee County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee, would turn over management of Kulwicki Park, a county park, to the City of Greenfield.

This precedent could lead to the decentralization of our county park system by systematically returning suburban parks to the communities in which they reside.

Greenfield advocates argue that this needs to be done in order to provide much-needed improvements for their park due to decades of deferred maintenance. For those who find that argument appealing, I ask you to note the Public Policy Forum’s analysis of the Northshore Fire Department’s significant tax savings gained over the past 20 years through consolidation of fire services in Northshore communities.

Consolidation of services is hardly a new concept. It is exactly what our county did when it expanded its park system back in 1938 to include suburban parks.

 

By centralizing park services, we eliminated the need for 19 separate and more costly municipal park systems and, in doing so, reaped the tax savings resulting from the subsequent economies of scale. The proposal to turn over Kulwicki Park to Greenfield moves in precisely the opposite direction.

This management agreement is not about saving tax dollars. What then is it aimed at?

We have all witnessed County Executive Chris Abele’s enthusiasm for ridding the county of costs associated with nearly all county-owned assets, including the assets themselves. I don’t believe his attitude toward parks is any different.

What will be the likely result of transferring the management of parks back to individual communities?

 

Underlying the arguments favoring this initiative is the tacit belief that Milwaukee County has failed to properly care for its parks. It is hard to argue otherwise.

That allegation is, in fact, clearly supported by a report by the non-partisan Public Policy Forum that estimated the deferred maintenance deficit within our park system to be in excess of $275 million. Today, that figure likely exceeds $450 million.

The task of the dedicated employees of our parks department has been made impossible by the “cut taxes at any cost” climate of the past 20 years. One need only compare this year’s parks budget as a percentage of county spending to the 1987 budget to understand why our parks today find themselves in such a diminished state.

Two questions: First, if Kulwicki has not been properly cared for, is there any park in our 15,000-acre  park system of which that cannot be said? Second, how will turning parks over to their resident municipalities solve the problem of chronic underfunding?

Your County Board has provided an answer to that underfunding. A countywide advisory referendum was put on the ballot in the spring of 2008 asking voter opinion on increasing the county sales tax by 1% in order to better fund our failing park and transit systems.

That referendum passed. Despite a difficult economy, the majority of Milwaukee County residents chose additional taxes over continued diminishment of their quality of life.

However, when it came to granting legislative authority for county government to levy that tax, it was not the voice of the people that prevailed, but rather the power of special interests.

Regarding the Kulwicki Park proposal, I believe there is a likelihood that in a decentralized park system, wealthier communities’ parks will prosper — at greater expense — while parks in less advantaged areas will continue to decline.

In other words: A two-tiered park system with the usual winners and the usual losers likely will result.

Furthermore, the county executive recently has voiced a goal of forcing our park system to produce enough revenue to be self-sustaining. This goal is antithetical to the value of open space for urban dwellers and likely to destroy what is left of our great park system.

I ask my fellow citizens to keep these cautions in mind as they weigh what the transfer  of management  of one park might come to mean as a precedent for the future of our entire park system. And perhaps to ponder a final question:

Why would a county executive ask the state for unfettered control of county land sales, including parkland, if he had no desire to exercise that option?

 

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