Tonight, at the Mitchell Domes, there was a celebration commemorating the “gold medal” won by the Milwaukee County Parks and its director, Sue Black.
The winning of this award is quite an accomplishment, especially when one considers that the parks budget has been cut every single year for the past 28 years and there are $300 million in deferred and backlogged maintenance projects. Then again, this award was given out based on a 12 minute video, created by the Parks Department. It obviously did not include those areas that were left in gross disrepair.
As highlighted in the video, the parks would be in much worse condition if not for the generosity of many of our corporate neighbors and, of course, The Park People of Milwaukee County. But even this approach is not without some danger, as evidenced by the events in New York City:
When New York began relying on public-private parks partnerships following the fiscal crisis of the seventies, the idea was that private philanthropic groups would pick up the slack. And they did. Groups like the Central Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, and the Bryant Park Corporation rose to respond to that crisis. But the city’s newest parks, paid for and operated largely by nonpublic dollars, are girded tightly by their private patrons.
The High Line was invented as a park by Friends of the High Line, which raised $44 million in donations and helped select the design. Celebrity endorsements (Edward Norton, Diane Von Furstenberg), caps on visitor attendance, adjacent real-estate development, and a dense police presence compared to other parks have all contributed to the appearance of something less than fully public. Elsewhere, the Parks Department has met with a local interest group called Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, which offered to hire its own security and maintenance forces for the newly renovated green. Parks turned them down but did “discuss the designs of the next phase of renovation.” And in order to build the $350 million Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, a public agency, is using the private developers of luxury condos like One Brooklyn Bridge Park to pay for the maintenance of its public front yard (never mind what’ll happen if the condos don’t sell).
Expect more of the same. “What’s happening on a basic level is that the city does not feel that parks are its responsibility anymore,” says Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “But every community deserves to have healthy parks, not just ones that have wealthy benefactors.”
By looking at Scott Walker’s 2010 proposed budget, it becomes all too apparent that next year is going to be a year of great peril for our county parks. Some of the “highlights” of Walker’s proposed budget includes closing the outdoor deep well pools at Holler, Jackson, Pelican Cove and Washington Parks; closing both of the indoor pools (Noyes and Pulaski); closing both community centers (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kosciusko); and putting parking meters at the lakefront; selling Crystal Ridge Ski Hill; and laying off scores of park workers, which in turn will delay such basic things like grass cutting, snow plowing and even changing light bulbs at the senior centers.
In exchange, Walker is proposing to build a $12 million aquatics center in an undetermined location in one of the southernmost suburbs and a couple of splash pads. Walker’s rationale for this is that aquatic centers are that aquatic centers are the “wave of the future,” and would draw more families.
That may very well be true. However, Walker forgets that he is supposed to be running a county and not an amusement park. The pools service more than just families. The indoor pools service the elderly and the disabled, who cannot afford to join athletic clubs, and use the blocked off times for physical therapy and classes.
Fortunately for the citizens and the tax payers of Milwaukee County, there has already been better solutions provided.
County Supervisors Dimitrijevic, Thomas, Larson and Weishan have come up with an alternative plan which includes restoring all the outdoor pools
and both indoor pools. Furthermore, there proposal includes enhancing the two indoor pools to make them into year-round water parks which would enhance revenue much more than a seasonal outdoor park. And to make it even more attractive, this alternative plan would be more than $5 million less than Walker’s plan.
This would allow both community centers to remain open and still leave more than $4 million to decrease the projected deficit.
The Supervisors’ alternative plan is not only much more fiscally responsible, but it is also much more socially responsible, and Milwaukee County endorses it fully.
That said, the plan for an aquatics center should not be dismissed out of hand. One of our board members, Greg Kowalski, has taken it upon himself to start a drive to request that Milwaukee County consider striking a deal with the citizens of Franklin, much like the deal between the County and a citizens group did for the benefit of Hoyt Park. Greg has met with considerable success already in getting signatures on a petition stating as much. While it might not be a fiscal feasibility this year, it is definitely an idea to keep in mind and worth pursuing.
Much like the transit system, the parks are in this perennial dilemma because of the fact that they are not a mandated service. With the state habitually short-changing Milwaukee County on the mandated services, the parks system feels the budget pinch more and more with each progressive year.
The obvious solution to this ongoing problem would be a dedicated funding source, such as the sales tax that was passed in a referendum almost a full year ago. Unfortunately, during the state’s budget process last summer, the sales tax referendum was eliminated from consideration.
Fortunately, there are still some elected officials that we send to Madison that have an interest in putting Milwaukee County first. One of these individuals is Representative Christine Sinicki, who is introducing a bill that would authorize a half-penny sales tax, with property tax relief, that would be dedicated to funding the parks system.
Representative Sinicki can’t do it alone. We need to make sure she gets the help you need. One of the easiest things you can do is join your voices to the growing number of people who are calling on Governor Jim Doyle and the rest of the state legislature to honor the will of the voters and to allow Milwaukee County the chance to help ourselves. You can do this simply by signing our petition. Also, call and/or email your state representative and tell them that you want them to support this bill, and help it pass without delay.