Report: Minneapolis, Cleveland and other peers offer solutions for cash-strapped Milwaukee County Parks

The Mitchell Park Domes

Last updated on October 21st, 2021 at 09:26 am

Peer parks systems from across the country offer some potential paths forward for the cash-strapped Milwaukee County Parks system, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The well-documented financial challenges of the county parks system have been growing to a crescendo over the past decade, with county executive David Crowley warning earlier this year that there may be no property tax levy available to support the parks by 2027 if current projections related to county salaries and fringe benefit costs hold.

As part of a larger report aimed at helping the county find a sustainable solution, the Wisconsin Policy Forum examined the different kinds of partnerships, funding strategies and governance structures used by parks systems in Minneapolis, Cleveland, Dane County, Madison, Seattle and Sonoma County, California.

Minneapolis, for example, has an independent park district, governed by an elected board of commissioners, that has its own property tax levy authority. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board also uses an enterprise fund to house certain revenue-generating amenities, like golf courses and ice skating facilities – which means amenities that have the potential to be self-sustaining do not require general fund support.

The report highlights how, due to growing constraints on property tax resources, the Milwaukee County parks department revenue mix has changed over the years to become increasingly reliant on earned revenues, such as permits, admissions fees, food and beverage sales, and rentals.

“This current paradigm suggests that those contemplating the future of the Milwaukee County Parks should now view them as two distinct elements,” the report said. “A set of revenue-generating amenities and attractions that are essential to the department’s fiscal well-being and that citizens therefore must continue to pay to use; and another set of traditional open spaces, trails, ballfields, playgrounds, etc. that provide largely unfettered access to the general public and that are essential to the parks system’s historical mission.”

The report suggests Milwaukee County could create an enterprise fund similar to Minneapolis that segregates revenue-generating parks amenities and requires them to collectively pay for themselves. Another possibility from the report would be to transfer select attractions – such as Boerner Botanical Gardens or the Domes – into distinct organizational units within county budget and finance them separately from parks.

Another case study highlighted in the report is Cleveland. The city has an independent park district, called Metroparks, governed by a board of appointed commissioners with its own tax levy that can be raised via voter referendum. The department partners with 12 nonprofits that provide programming in the parks, such as summer camps, archery, recreation and horse-riding instruction. The organizations are funded through class fees, events and philanthropic dollars. Madison and Seattle both have similiar partnerships among parks systems and nonprofits.

“Milwaukee County Parks could pursue similar opportunities with nonprofits that offer afterschool and adult enrichment programming,” the report said.

It also noted that the county could approach nonprofit health systems about using under-utilized buildings for educational programming or services at park locations. Other possible partnerships could come from Milwaukee Public Schools or suburban districts to enhance programs and support maintenance of rec facilities, the report said.

Dane County Parks, meanwhile, is a division of the county’s larger Land and Resources Department, with resources generally being shared among divisions depending on project or program needs. It also relies heavily on friend groups and volunteers to provide programming, the report said. The system also offers fee waiver requests from residents to help increase access to the parks.

“Such an approach might be considered by Milwaukee County stakeholders both for equity purposes and to potentially make broader use of fees more palatable,” the report said.

For several peer parks systems, individual municipal governments play a larger role in owning and maintaining parks that have recreational components, while the county parks tend to be regional and more passive-use in nature, according to the report.

“(Milwaukee) County’s inability to appropriately maintain all of its assets may suggest the need for a greater role by municipal governments in maintaining county parks in their communities, with a particular emphasis on those that are used primarily for recreational purposes by neighborhood (as opposed to regional) residents,” the report said.

Several of the solutions presented in the report would require state authorization, such as creating an independent district to collect funds from a dedicated sales or property tax, or the state authorizing a dedicated property or sales tax for parks with the amount to tax established by referendum, among others.

The report, funded in part by the county parks department and the Herzfeld Foundation, notes that the more sweeping potential changes to the county parks system would require years to plan, approve and implement, while others could be done more quickly. Parks stakeholders and public officials are expected to review the report’s findings and identify a handful of specific new models to analyze further.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum has been exploring Milwaukee County Parks’ funding challenges and ever-growing list of maintenance needs since 2008. A report published three years ago found almost every form of parks infrastructure has pressing needs, with replacements needed for most parking lots, walkways, parkways and basketball courts. The backlog of repair and replacement needs across the county’s parks and cultural institutions is “seemingly insurmountable,” the report said, as the county lacks the capacity to finance them.

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