State park usage increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Ascent. People and pets have also flocked to local parks, bike paths, and golf courses – testament to the popularity of such services that some communities are now struggling to fund.
The city of Madison and Milwaukee Counties had played record-breaking rounds of golf, overuse of grassy dog parks in the Madison area became “dust bowls,” and the popularity of some sections of the Oak Leaf Trail in Milwaukee “went through the roof,” two park officials said.
Guy Smith, Executive Director of Milwaukee County Parks, and Eric Knepp, Madison Parks Superintendent, held a virtual round table Friday to discuss funding for Wisconsin parks and the financial problems facing communities.
Knepp said while permits for certain activities generated revenue, high usage maintenance added expense to the city’s Madison Parks division.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley has warned parks will face a fiscal cliff in six years if additional funding is not found.
“I think it’s important to understand that the way we fund parks just isn’t sustainable,” Crowley said during the round table hosted by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The Policy Forum produced a report assessing the financial health of the parks operated by Milwaukee County and looking at how other systems in the state and elsewhere in the country fund their operations. The analysis found that the amount of Milwaukee parks funded through property taxes fell from 74 percent in 1989 to 43 percent in 2019 over a 30-year period.
Madison remains heavily dependent on property taxes for its parks – but that may change. In 2020, three-quarters of the parking budget came mostly from property taxes, while golf courses are expected to cover all operating and capital costs on their own.
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“When I see we’re 75 percent all-purpose revenue today and Milwaukee County in 1989, before it went down, I feel like we’re on a similar path,” Knepp said.
The state requires counties to pay for courts and other services, but funding for parks is voluntary. Crowley said that since government-mandated services make up a larger proportion of property taxes, there is less money to spend on parks, public transportation, or security.
The parks, he said, play an important role in Milwaukee County, which is working to become the healthiest county in the state after years of poorly ranking in health outcomes.
Milwaukee County has also tried to make green spaces fairer by assigning each park a score based on a set of weighted metrics. These include minorities, incomes and crime. Each park receives an equity index score from one to 10. The higher the score, the greater the equity requirement.
In a ranking of parking systems in the 100 largest cities in the United States last May, the Trust for Public Land used racial and income equity as one of its criteria for the first time.
Madison was ranked 13th overall and received high marks for park access and spending. However, Madison residents in low-income neighborhoods have access to 69 percent less parking space than residents in high-income neighborhoods, the report said.
Milwaukee, ranked 34th overall, has also invested heavily in its parks. However, the report says residents in neighborhoods where most people identify as a black person have access to 70 percent less parking space than white residents.