Milwaukee County's vaunted park system has been caught for years in an increasingly serious budget squeeze, and it's looking frayed around the edges. What is to be done?

By Virginia Small & Tom Tolan

Gazing at a vast lagoon in Washington Park on Milwaukee’s West Side, Jim Goulee, a long-time advocate for the county’s public parks, looks displeased. A thick mat of weedy plants clogs the water, and he suspects it might be curly-leaf pondweed, which can be quite aggressive. The pond, he says, “is so full of invasive species you could walk across the top of it.” But that’s not all that troubles Goulee. Pointing out thickets of encroaching cattails, an asphalt walkway worn down to gravel, failing metal bridge railings and woody weeds that eclipse the trunks of stately trees, Goulee comments, “It just looks like hell, obviously.”

It wasn’t always this way. “Thirty years ago, we used to point to Milwaukee as a model city for parks,” says Bob O’Neill, executive director of Chicago’s Grant Park Conservancy. With 1,100 full-time staff in 1973, the Milwaukee County Park System, which encompassed 15,000 acres at the time, was meticulously maintained and envied nationwide.

Unequivocally, there is still much to admire: Picturesque parks around the county are linked by scenic parkways. Grant Park’s trails in South Milwaukee traverse wooded ravines on rustic bridges on the way to a sandy beach. Whitnall Park boasts rolling hills, wide-ranging recreational options and an acclaimed botanical garden. Contiguous parks bordering Lake Michigan form a spectacular miles-long public waterfront. And total parks acreage has increased since the 1970s, by a little over 300 acres.

The problem comes down to maintenance and money. Stewarding these public landscapes costs more than the country has been able to expand in recent decades, creating a backlog of capital and maintenance needs totaling a whopping $246 million. The downturn started in the early 1980s, when county officials began slashing park funding. The army of park workers has dwindled to about 200 full-time staff today.

The lack of funds has left the parks in varying states of deterioration. The highly publicized decay of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, “The Domes,” could result in its demolition. A Lake Park concrete footbridge was fenced off last year, and Ravine Road beneath it has been closed since 2014, due to the bridge’s disrepair. Minimal staffing at Boerner Botanical Gardens resulted in “triage gardening,” addressing only the most urgent problems. Neglect at other less-prominent parks gets even less notice.

As the first step in creating a 10-year Park System Master Plan and the related 2050 Park & Open Space Plan to manage the parks going forward, Milwaukee County Parks began soliciting public opinion last year. Workshops were held countywide to find out what type of park facilities citizens most value, how they view maintenance and operations, and how they think parks should be funded. Similar questions were posed in a survey sent to 4,000 households in the county. John Dargle Jr., director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, says the survey and workshop results are among numerous elements that will figure into final plans, scheduled for completion in 2018.

Among the survey findings are that 68 percent of respondents are very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the “overall value” of the county parks. This figure compares favorably to the national average of 63 percent. But the number that answered very satisfied (22 percent) is lower than the national average of 29 percent. When asked what prevented their use of the parks, about 40 percent of respondents said they use parks less often because of poorly maintained restrooms and 38 percent are less likely to use them due to inadequate maintenance of other facilities.

“After three decades of continuous budget cuts, they’ve gotten down to the bone – long past the point of finding inefficiencies,” says Goulee, who served on the county parks staff for 33 years, including 17 as a regional manager, and then spent 11 years working for The Park People of Milwaukee County, a nonprofit umbrella organization that assists thousands of “citizen stewards” of county parks. He now serves on the board of Preserve Our Parks, a smaller watchdog group that focuses on keeping parks intact and accessible to everyone.

Dargle agrees that Milwaukee’s world-class park system is in a state of disrepair. “It needs some loving,” he says. He and County Executive Chris Abele have decided not to leave anything off the table in considering the system’s future. The household survey put forth three key options to address the deferred maintenance and repair issues: increasing tax and fee revenue, developing more partnerships with for-profit and non-profit entities and repurposing – and possibly eliminating – services and facilities.

Maintenance Mostly Deferred

First row, from left: pond at Washington Park choked with weeds; restrooms at Kosciuszko Park pool; South Lighthouse Ravine trail in Lake Park, where county drainage engineering is in progress

Second row: damaged pathway at Washington Park; park benches in Jackson Park

Third row: park shelter at Cudahy Nature Preserve; blocked off Ravine Road in Lake Park, shot from Lincoln Memorial Drive; one of the deteriorating Domes at Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory

A Concept that Still Resonates

Beer wasn’t the only thing that made Milwaukee famous; beautiful parks have been part of the county’s identity for over 100 years. They are still integral to its allure today as metro areas compete for businesses and residents by maintaining appealing public spaces that enhance quality of life. When Milwaukee millennials choose where to live, 69 percent consider proximity to parks, according to a recent study. And the value of public parks goes far beyond recreation, says Venice Williams, executive director of Alice’s Garden, an urban farming operation within Johnsons Park on the North Side. “It’s especially important for central city young people to have direct access to nature, science education and other programming,” she says. “It’s crucial for everyone to have … safe and engaging parks.”

The planning of our parks, like those in many U.S. cities, began in the 19th century, when civic leaders waged a long, uphill battle to build the system. In 1890, Milwaukee had a mere 60 acres of public parks (including what’s now Juneau Park) for 205,000 city residents. Private amusement parks and beer gardens catered to those who could afford them. Retired industrialist Christian Wahl and other activists argued that without plentiful public parks – what they called “the lungs of a city” – Milwaukee would fall behind. In 1889, the city finally formed a park commission, which Wahl headed for a decade. It soon purchased land for seven major parks.

The commission also hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated co-designer of Central Park in New York City, who was creating landscapes for Chicago’s 1893 world’s fair. Olmsted designed Lake Park and what became Riverside and Washington parks, as well as Newberry Boulevard. Civic leaders embraced Olmsted’s ideas about the importance of public spaces in a democracy and of a thoughtfully designed system with varied parks “to furnish healthful recreation for the poor and the rich, the young and the old,” as Olmsted wrote about Central Park.

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Milwaukee County launched its own park commission in 1907; its motto was “The greatest good for the largest number.” In 1923, Socialist Charles B. Whitnall proposed a county-encircling “necklace of green” – with parkways linking parks. That blueprint was mostly implemented, with much work done by Depression-era work-relief program laborers. Preserving land around rivers and creeks in their natural state was far ahead of its time. Whitnall and others argued that plentiful green spaces would improve public health by providing an oasis from the “harshness and crude lines and noises of the town.” Parks were also designed to limit flooding, relieve urban congestion, support diverse recreation and increase property values.

Rank and spending per capita

These are national rankings of parks in seven Midwestern cities, along with per capita park spending, according to ParkScore® 2017.* * Only parks within city limits are analyzed. Compiled by The Trust for Public Land.

Alfred Boerner, hired in 1927 as Milwaukee County’s first landscape architect, developed a signature style of naturalistic parks that retained existing topography and plantings wherever possible. County parks were designed with lakes, waterfalls, woodlands and meadows, and rustic structures built with local stone and timber. Even small neighborhood parks ingeniously incorporated both recreation and natural beauty. The county system now includes 158 named parks, 11 parkways and 140 miles of recreational trails. Perhaps the greatest collective achievement of the two commissions, begun in 1890 and fully realized in 1979 with the completion of Veterans Park, was to preserve most land bordering Lake Michigan for public uses, after expanded park acreage by filling in lakebed. Milwaukee’s incomparable lakefront often astonishes visitors.

About a decade ago, the Milwaukee County parks were recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as historically significant for their exceptional landscape architecture, community planning and development, and federal work-relief projects. While many individual county parks were singled out, it’s the distinctive character of the interwoven network – implemented on a grand scale – that sets the park system apart. In Milwaukee’s case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, as pointed out by a 2013 county-funded report on managing the parks’ historic resources. The report lays out ways to preserve the defining qualities of individual parks as well as the system as a whole.

County Parks Funding 101

In the 2017 county budget, property taxes are funding $19.6 million for parks. Revenue such as golf and swim fees, concession income, marina and other facility rentals contributes another $19.9 million.

But that $39.5 million is actually $4.5 million less than the 1986 budget. “Had the parks budget kept pace with inflation, it would be at least double what it is today,” says Goulee. Adding more headaches is the aforementioned hefty backlog of capital and maintenance needs, totaling $246 million, with only about $6 million allotted annually to address that.

The parks’ dire condition results from factors that apply to the entire county budget. As Teig Whaley-Smith, director of the county’s Department of Administrative Services, explains it, the budget is in a particularly cruel vise, with shared revenue from the state dropping sharply over the years – from $350 million a year in 2007 to just over $150 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the cost of supporting county retirees keeps mounting. For example, the cost of county pensions – widely reported over the years – is projected to rise from $20 million a year in 2006 to over $100 million in 2020. Also, retiree health care costs are expected to go from $38 million annually in 2015 to about $60 million in 2021.

“Does that mean we’re going to eliminate the Parks Department? Of course not,” Whaley-Smith says. “It just means we need a lot of help figuring this out.”

County Executive Chris Abele concurs. “The biggest source of revenue is not one we control; it’s the state,” Abele says. “I try to make that argument all the time in Madison – give us back some of the money we pay the state” in terms of income and sales taxes generated in Milwaukee County.

County Supervisor Jason Haas, chairman of the County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee, agrees that a decrease in state shared revenue is to blame for some of the decline in the parks budget. “The parks are essential to our quality of life,” he says, but when there’s a budget squeeze, parks often bear the brunt. “Since there’s no law requiring we have a parks department, that’s always an easy thing to cut,” he adds.

And there may be more challenges ahead for the budget. Haas notes that Dargle told him the administration is likely to cut $2.5 million in tax-levy funding for the 2018 parks operating budget. He said that Dargle expects that the department will look to earned revenue to make up the shortfall. The recommended county budget – still in its preliminary stages, so it could change – is due to be released in the fall.

Earning Their Keep

The good news is that the parks system’s earned income is on the rise. In terms of user fees, golf courses provide the most revenue – $6.4 million, followed by concessions, which brought in $2.8 million in 2016 – double the total in 2013. (Beer gardens alone contributed over $1 million to the total for concessions.)

But Milwaukee County is outpacing peer cities in its reliance on earned income. Only 16 percent of Madison’s parks budget comes from earned income (as user fees). About 34 percent of Chicago’s park district funding comes from earned income, including lucrative proceeds from managing Soldier Field stadium.

And some of Milwaukee County’s fees are prohibitive. Take picnic sites, for example. Anyone can use a picnic table for free, but to legally grill or drink alcohol in a picnic area, you must pay for a permit, and the fee starts at a rather steep $85. Abele says that part of the fee pays for cleanup. “I would love to make that free for everybody, but to do that I have to cut something else,” he says.

Also, a successful fee hike can sometimes beget more hikes, which can impact usage. Dan Diliberti, former county treasurer, cites public swimming pools as an example. “When they [county officials] wanted to raise more money, they decided they’d raise the admission fee,” says Diliberti. “As they raised the admission fee, the number of people swimming in the pools went down, but they made more money. So, for budgeting purposes, that was a success. But for the health and welfare of the community, was it a success?” It currently costs $3 to swim in most public county pools for those 12 years of age and older; $2 for those younger. Expensive, if you have a few kids and they swim a lot. And even if you get a season pass, for a parent and two little kids, that will still set you back $70.

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“You have to look at how you’re serving the public, what your goal is. It’s hard, if you’re in difficult financial times, to make these choices,” Diliberti says.

Means of Taxation

Diliberti believes county parks “are in dire need of a dedicated funding source,” public money that would be guaranteed for parks, so that they no longer have to compete with other departments for county budget allocations. In the early 2000s, he led a community task force on funding parks; its 2003 report recommended a one-half percent sales-tax increase. That revenue could be far more than the amount needed to replace the $19.6 million tax levy now funding parks, and could also result in a corresponding reduction in county property taxes.

The Park People volunteers take part in a “weed out,” removing and marking areas at Cudahy Nature Preserve park that have garlic mustard, an invasive species. Photo by Erich Schroeder

Earned income percentage: Milwaukee County parks get a larger percentage of their funding from sources other than taxes than do Chicago or Madison.

In 2008, Milwaukee County voters approved an advisory referendum for a half-percent sales tax to support parks, cultural institutions and transit. But the state Legislature never implemented the tax. Although the idea still has many supporters – from Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, to most county residents who attended parks-planning workshops or responded to the parks department survey – Gov. Scott Walker opposes any sales-tax increases, so trying again is unlikely to succeed, say county administrators. 

Abele backed an effort to boost county budget revenue by increasing the county’s vehicle registration fee from the current $30 to $60, but voters rejected it by a wide margin in an advisory referendum in April. He had said some of that transportation-related money could have been used for projects on county parkways.

It Helps to Have Friends

In most cities with thriving parks – such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston and Madison – government money is the cake, funding the infrastructure and maintenance, while philanthropic donations are the frosting, enhancing the budget. Milwaukee County officials hope to rely even more heavily on private donations, which have averaged well over $500,000 annually.

Since its founding in 1977, The Park People has helped citizens organize groups to support a specific park, facility or type of amenity, such as trails or dog parks. About 50 “friend groups” that vary in size and mission have been a big boon for the park system. Some have become independent nonprofits; Friends of Boerner Botanical Garden and Friends of the Domes respectively run gift-shop operations and conduct other functions. Lake Park Friends raises at least $100,000 annually for park enhancements, tennis scholarships and free programming. The Park People helped bring the popular “China Lights” festival to Boerner Botanical Garden last fall; it raised $335,000 for a fund solely for Boerner improvements. 

Through these groups, volunteers help with maintenance, removing harmful plants, tending trails and organizing clean-ups.

The downside of an increased reliance on friends groups in maintaining and enhancing parks is that it comes with the risk of intensifying a two-tier park system – for haves and have-nots – which was well documented in a 2002 Public Policy Forum report. To the county’s credit, it spent millions of dollars to improve Johnsons and Moody parks on the North Side in recent years. However, those plans were launched by parks advocates, philanthropic groups and (in the case of Moody) County Supervisor Willie Johnson Jr., before Abele took office in 2011. On the other hand, the county has permanently closed six of its pools in the past two decades, and all of them were on the North Side of Milwaukee.

Looking to the Future

With the upcoming Master Plan, the goal is to create a blueprint of long-term priorities for parks and open space that are aligned with the desires of the community at large. But with the aforementioned budgetary obstacles, what are the options?

One approach is to shrink the amount of land and facilities managed by the parks department, though county officials say they won’t get rid of named parks. Says Abele: “The county owns a fair amount of land that isn’t zoned for parks, including agriculture land. … But if there is land that doesn’t have conservancy value and where development could increase property tax revenues to support things like parks, I’m all for it.”

* Only parks within city limits included. ParkScore® 2017 figures compiled by The Trust for Public Land.

Despite the pitfalls, an increased reliance on earned income and private funding seems inevitable. Abele and Dargle advocate increased “public-private partnerships” (as do many in the parks survey), such as those that built a new Hoyt Pool, allowed The Bartolotta Restaurants to renovate the Lake Park pavilion as a high-end French restaurant, and let Journey House create and control Packers Field in Mitchell Park. Other partnerships are currently on the table. Journey House offers a plan to upgrade baseball diamonds at Baran Park and control access to them, including setting and collecting rental fees, which some neighbors fear will reduce their access. An anonymous donor has offered $1 million to replace Lark Park’s bridge over Ravine Road, conditional on permanently closing the road that connects the lakefront to the bluff.

The American concept of public parks was promoted by Olmsted and others as a way to foster democracy – by creating spaces to be enjoyed by all forever. Goulee and other parks advocates tend to raise flags about any actions that limit public access to park land or facilities (including by prohibitive fees) that benefit private entities while compromising the interests of ordinary citizens, or that increase inequities within the park system. These and other concerns will continue to be at the core of discussions about the future of Milwaukee County Parks. Debates about how to best fund and revitalize that system will also be paramount. Any public-funding solution will likely require lobbying in Madison for appropriate “enabling legislation,” which, by the way, has been required time and again in the development of Milwaukee’s parks since 1889. ◆

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” July 20 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

Virginia Small of Milwaukee is a longtime student of parks history. Tom Tolan is a magazine staffer.

‘No Picnic’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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