On Feb. 8, it was reported that the Mitchell Park Domes would be closed until further notice after staff discovered a large piece of concrete had fallen from the ceiling in the Desert Dome on Jan. 28.
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This closure, along with other incidents involving infrastructure disrepair, like the bridge closure at Lake Park more than a year ago, is a symptom of a much larger problem--Milwaukee County does not have enough money to operate and maintain its buildings, structures and parks. According to a Public Policy Forum Report, Milwaukee County Parks had an estimated $276 million deficit in deferred maintenance on its parks’ facilities alone as of 2008, and that number has likely grown much higher.
In response to the Mitchell Park Domes closure, County Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb urged the Parks Department and County Executive Chris Abele to be more forthcoming in providing the County Board with engineering reports and accounts of how past allocated funds have been spent, ostensibly so the County Board can make the best informed decisions on park management. Lipscomb went on to say, “We’d like all the information … and there needs to be a broader community conversation about whether this is an icon that we’d like to save for future generations.”
Chairman Lipscomb is right that decisions made by our elected officials regarding our public parks should be made using the best available information and cost estimates, and should consider community input regarding which assets provide the most benefit to residents and taxpayers.
Ironically, Lipscomb has continually ignored this suggestion for a broader community conversation about the future of the Estabrook Dam by continually kowtowing to a local and very vocal minority of constituents using questionable means. He has ignored recommendations to remove the dam from Milwaukee County Parks staff, as well as from the Milwaukee County emergency manager and a county-hired engineering firm tasked with writing the alternatives analysis and environmental impact report for the dam. He has ignored widespread public support for dam removal (more than 1,800 people have signed a petition), as well as resolutions in support of dam removal from the City of Milwaukee, the City of Shorewood and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
The 80-year-old dam is currently non-functional (the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ordered it to be opened in 2008 for public safety), degrades the health of the Milwaukee River, impedes fish movement, and elevates flood risk for homeowners who live upstream of the dam. Dam repair will cost Milwaukee County taxpayers around $6 million over the next 20 years for repair of the structure, annual operation and maintenance, and for construction and maintenance of a proposed fish passage facility (which solves only one of many environmental problems posed by the dam).
The County Board has had several opportunities to change the county's policy and remove the dam for a one-time cost of $1.6 million, but instead has decided to vote against the best interest of its constituents and the environment by committing to more than $6 million in taxpayer dollars over the next 20 years to benefit a small number of homeowners who want a “lake” for motorized boating. These cost estimates do not include dredging upstream of a newly repaired dam structure, which the county’s own hired expert has admitted would likely cost additional millions of dollars (as part of depositions relating to a court order to Milwaukee County to abate the public nuisance the dam has been declared). The County Board has not even been presented with full maintenance and dredging costs when making its piecemeal decisions regarding the dam. After 20 years, which is the expected lifetime of the structure, millions more would need to be spent to remove the dam at that time.
Removing Estabrook Dam is the best option for taxpayers, for the County Parks, and for the health of the Milwaukee River. After years of backroom negotiations and questionable process at the County Board relating to the Estabrook Dam, we would encourage the board to take a fresh look not only at the future of the dam, but at all of its park facilities.
The disrepair of the Mitchell Park Domes highlights the need for the County Board to make more informed and responsible decisions when it comes to operating and maintaining our ailing Milwaukee County Parks. Is repairing Estabrook Dam the best use of taxpayer dollars? Is Estabrook Dam an “icon that we’d like to save for future generations?” I doubt the vast majority of Milwaukee County residents would agree. Removing the Estabrook Dam could free up financial resources that could be put to better use in restoring other county assets like the Mitchell Park Domes or Lake Park’s iconic bridges that benefit a greater number of citizens. Indeed, let’s start a broader community conversation about the future of our parks system and how it is managed before it’s too late.
Cheryl Nenn is a riverkeeper for Milwaukee Riverkeeper.