The Milwaukee County Park Department was once regarded as the best urban park system in America and was the envy of other large metropolitan areas. It served as the national model for public investment in open space, recreational facilities and programs. This is no longer true. While the rest of the nation has discovered the wisdom of upgrading park facilities and investing in new parks our park system has experienced a significant decline in funding due its reliance on the property tax as a means of support.
From 1983 to 2007, the county’s overall tax levy grew by 112%, out-pacing inflation, yet during that same time, the park system’s share of the levy shrunk by 18%. Factored for inflation over this twenty-four year period, the reduction in park funding is a sobering 65%. This reduction has led to an unconscionable build-up of deferred maintenance and a loss of nearly two-thirds of the full time workforce. As staff levels have dropped there has been a related increase in the perception that our parks are not as safe as they once were.
It’s no secret that our parks have lost their luster. Evidence of this is the proliferation of Friends Groups, Park Watch Groups and Neighborhood Associations that are concentrating their volunteer efforts on improving parks. The business and corporate communities are also weighing in with significant contributions for park programs and improvements. It has become very obvious that many in our community understand the value of parks to our quality of life.
The Park system is suffering. It doesn’t have to be this way. We all share in the responsibility to preserve and enhance our parks for future generations. The most effective way to ensure they will remain a vibrant public trust is to alter their source of funding. The sales tax advisory referendum is an opportunity for the citizens of Milwaukee County to speak on this issue. What is the harm in that?