The funding problems facing Milwaukee's transit and parks systems are well known and easy to recognize. On the transit side, fares have steadily increased while routes and service has decreased. While our parks have won well deserved awards for management, they face a $250 million deferred backlog that can be easily seen away from the lakefront.
The last major push to address the funding problem was the a referendum passed in 2008 by the residents of Milwaukee County that approved a 1% sales tax to go towards transit, parks and EMS services. (Full disclosure: I was involved in helping get the referendum passed in 2008.) Even though Milwaukee County supported the sales tax, legislators in Madison – to be fair, controlled by Democrats at the time – promptly did nothing except point fingers and give lots and lots of reasons why they were helpless to do anything.
Unfortunately, very little has been done since then to address the funding crisis facing parks and transit by Milwaukee County Government.
The yearly budget cycle for the Milwaukee County Parks Department (for example) has become a predictable series of events that goes something like this:
1.) County Exec proposes a slight cut to parks budget while raising revenue projections to partially cover shortfall
2.) County Supervisors hold listening sessions where they bemoan the fact that the 2008 sales tax was never implemented and citizens plead with them to spare parks and transit from the budget axe
3.) County Supervisor partially restore budget cuts and in stirring speeches bemoan the fact that the 2008 sales tax was never implemented.
4.) Everyone pats themselves on the backs and congratulate each other on "supporting" our parks.
5.) Parks budget is once again lower than the previous year, more positions are cut and the amount of deferred maintenance increases.
6.) Rinse and repeat.
If you don't believe that, consider that when County Government took over our parks in 1983 the operating budget for parks was $41.6 million. The 2012 operating budget for the Parks Dept. was $40.2 million. Factor in inflation and you're looking at a huge decrease in the parks budget under County governance. This despite the fact that the overall Milwaukee County budget has nearly tripled during the same time!
The question now becomes what does Milwaukee County Government plan on doing to address these issues? My friends on the Board have often said, "The problem isn't the governance, it's the funding" when asked about solutions. I could agree with that if the governance body was addressing the funding, but they're not.
To my knowledge, there has been no movement within County Government to address the funding for our transit and parks systems since the elections in April. The "Intergovernmental Relations Committee" of the Milwaukee County Board did meet on Monday to reaffirm it's support for the 2008 sales tax referendum…
…which they couldn't even agree on. From the minutes of that meeting:
A resolution reaffirming Milwaukee County’s support of an approved advisory referendum for a dedicated sales tax to support county transit; parks, recreation, and culture programs; and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program and property tax relief in light of efforts to seek taxpayer funds to help replace the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Sponsors: Bowen, Haas, Johnson Jr., Stamper II and Mayo Sr.
Supervisor David Bowen, 10th District
Tia Torhorst, Director of Legislative Affairs, County Executive's Office
A motion was made by Supervisor Cullen to LAY OVER this item. The motion PREVAILED by the following vote:
Aye: 6 – Alexander, Dimitrijevic, Romo West, Cullen, Taylor and Lipscomb Sr. No: 1 – Broderick
Now, I applaud Sup. Bowen and his colleagues for trying to bring this back to life. But as the result of this resolution make painfully clear, the Milwaukee County Board can't even agree on beating the dead horse of a transit, parks & EMS sales tax anymore. What they could agree on, 6-1, was to kick the can down the road again by laying the item over until July at the soonest.
In fact, if you listen to the 30 minutes of discussion about this matter during the meeting, several Supervisors suggest having yet ANOTHER referendum about a sales tax for parks, transit and EMS services.
Why are our elected officials afraid to just increase the funding for parks and transit in Milwaukee County?
Why continually kick the can down the road when it comes to funding for parks and transit? They are the governance body in charge of funding for Milwaukee County's quality of life services and after four years of doing nothing to address those funding issues, suggesting yet another referendum to advocate for a sales tax that is absolutely DEAD ON ARRIVAL IN MADISON – even if it were to pass – just won't cut it.
Shame on those elected officials who continually rely on the protective crutch of referendums and study groups instead of doing what they were elected to do: make decisions and provide results for their constituents.
Campaign promises of "supporting parks" will have to go further than simply attending ribbon cuttings and weekly concerts if you're to have any credibility on this issue going forward.
While it might ruffle some feathers, people like me are gearing up to hold our elected officials accountable to their campaign promises of supporting parks and transit. If they choose to continue to kick the can down the road and refuse to be a responsible governance body for our parks system, we'll see that they're no longer burdened with the tough decisions they can't make when it comes to adequetley funding our parks in Milwaukee County.