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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Can Milwaukee’s Parks Be Saved?

Sales tax proposal doesn’t make it to governor’s desk

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This is so discouraging,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick said of the state budget, which failed to include a sales tax increase to support transit, parks, cultural assets and emergency medical services for Milwaukee County. “Frankly, the path ahead is not at all clear to me.”

Broderick, as chair of the county’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee, championed an advisory referendum on the November 2008 ballot that gauged the public’s interest in raising the sales tax 1% to support the county’s threatened assets and provide $67 million of property tax relief. County voters responded with 52% approval, indicating that they were willing to throw a much-needed financial lifeline to the parks and other institutions and lower their property taxes.

The catch, though, is that the state had to sign off on the plan, “enabling legislation,” and that provision didn’t make it to the final version of the state budget.

“It’s just a downward spiral for the parks,” Broderick said.

He noted that the park system faces a potential $8 million to $9 million deficit next year in its operating budget, while $300 million of deferred maintenance projects are stymied. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, given what hangs in the balance, which is essentially the future of the quality of life in our community,” Broderick said.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s next county budget may deliver a knockout blow to the parks. In hearings last week, proposed savings measures included selling the Crystal Ridge ski hill in Franklin, firing maintenance workers, shutting down all deep-well outdoor pools, ending support for two community centers and installing parking meters at the lakefront.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Christopher Larson, who also serves on the parks committee, said the parks’ funding woes are critical. “If we don’t have an influx of funds from the state, we need to talk about what we need to do to get a dedicated funding sales tax to take care of this long term,” Larson said. “We don’t even have the money to function.”

Since Wisconsin has a severe structural deficit, like virtually every other state in the nation, the chances of getting an appropriation from the state are slim to none.

What’s Next?

Getting state help will be a challenge, given the splintering of Milwaukee leaders on this issue. The county board supported the 1-cent sales tax, while County Executive Walker opposed it again and again. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett championed a 0.15% sales tax increase for local law enforcement, which had legislative support but not the governor’s. But Barrett was silent on the parks issue at a time when some contend his advocacy could have swayed uncommitted legislators.

Assembly Democrats split on the issue, seemingly fearful of raising the sales tax and providing Republicans with an election issue next year. The Assembly approved a half-cent sales tax increase for transit only, as well as Barrett’s law enforcement tax.

Over in the state Senate, Democrats included the 1-cent sales tax, thanks to efforts by state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). But the proposal was scuttled in later negotiations.

Parks advocates may consider making another stab at winning legislative support for a sales-tax-funded park system. But Gov. Jim Doyle, who could run for re-election in 2010, may not want to sign off on a sales tax increase in Milwaukee, where Walker is touting his credentials as a nonew-tax leader, ignoring the fact that each budget cycle the county board has had to fix Walker’s overly optimistic budgets.

“Under the current circumstances, we can repeat the same process and expect the same result,” Broderick said.

Janet Tierney, executive director of the Park People of Milwaukee County, said park supporters are discussing how to move forward. A potential solution may be to sever the parks from the county and place them into a separate parks district, an idea that has had some legislative support in the past. “There are a lot of conversations going on,” Tierney said.

But Larson said that parks management has never been a problem—adequate funding is. “The problem, at the root of it, is that Scott Walker isn’t taking care of it,” Larson said. “Now that his actions have had lasting results, the idea of a parks district and taking the parks away from Scott Walker sounds more appealing.”

Broderick said changing the structure of the parks may sound appealing at first, “but it doesn’t matter who’s running the parks if there’s no money to run them.”

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