The Value of Our Parks
We are all the beneficiaries of a public trust of parkland which was first created by visionary community leaders more than 100 years ago. Generation after generation of Milwaukee area families have looked to the parks for recreation and rejuvenation. The value of and need for public parks has increased with the ever increasing development of our local open spaces. Yet, our parks provide much more than open space or greenways. They provide wonderful community amenities such as playgrounds, soccer fields, baseball fields, golf courses, pools and beaches. Our parks also contain the last remnants of the natural heritage of Milwaukee County. Thankfully, today's children can still encounter, within habitats preserved by the parks, native plants and wildlife that once covered southeast Wisconsin. A well cared for park system can enrich our lives and enhance our quality of life. In turn, that will make the Milwaukee area more desirable and aid in keeping property values high. It is important, then, that we keep our parks safe for the next generation, redeeming the responsibility that has been passed to us from previous generations. Unfortunately, we are not doing well in this regard.
Milwaukee County's declining commitment to funding of our Parks
The operating budget for the parks in 1983, the first year our parks were under full control of the County Exec and County Board was 41.63 million dollars. The current year (2012) operating budget for the Parks Department is 40.24 million. Not only has the parks budget been cut by nearly 1.4 million dollars over these thirty years, but when factored for inflation over this same period the reduction in support is absolutely staggering. This reduction in funding translates to significant cuts in services and maintenance with a corresponding, steady decline in the number of park employees. In 1983 there were 760 full-time employees. Today there are fewer than 200. Visitor services have been cut, facilities have been neglected, and our natural areas are being overrun with non-native plant species. Park employees have been deprived of the resources needed to do a proper job. In general, our park system is deteriorating before our eyes. In 1983, park expenditures comprised 24% (or $26.96 million) of the overall County property tax levy. In 2012, approximately 8% (or $21.83 million) of the overall levy was devoted to the parks. This decline occurred over the same time period that the overall County budget grew from approximately .5 billion dollars to over 1.2 billion.
It’s time to end this failed experiment. Let’s return the luster to our parks by creating a Park District governed by an elected board of commissioners with the ability to levy taxes for park purposes.
The following is an excerpt from SB 248, a 2007 bill that would have enabled the creation of park districts in Wisconsin. This is the Legislative Reference Bureau’s analysis of that bill which is the model that should be followed in creating a park district for Milwaukee County. Please note that under this scenario the County would have to decrease its tax levy by a corresponding amount equal to the first year’s budget of a park district. This means that there would be no initial tax increase related to the creation of a park district. The advantage for our parks is that they would not be subjected to competing for precious tax dollars with other Milwaukee County service entities which ultimately caused the consistent decline in funding since 1983.
Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau
CREATION AND DISSOLUTION OF A DISTRICT
This bill authorizes one or more municipalities (cities, villages, or towns), one
or more counties, or any combination of political subdivisions (municipalities or
counties) to create a local park district (district). A district is a local unit of
government that is a body corporate and politic and that is separate and distinct
from, and independent of, the state and the sponsoring political subdivisions which
created it and that are within its jurisdiction.
Subject to a number of conditions, a district may be created by one of two
methods. Under both methods, an election of the district’s commissioners must take
place. Under the first method, the governing bodies of one or more political
subdivisions may adopt an enabling resolution that declares the need for
establishing the district and contains a description of the boundaries of the proposed
district. The participating counties or municipalities need not be contiguous. Each
political subdivision that adopts a substantially similar enabling resolution within
90 days, beginning with the date of adoption of the first enabling resolution, may be
part of the initial jurisdiction of a district.
Under the second method, a district consisting of one or more political
subdivisions may be created by a petition and referendum. The petition may be
circulated on or after January 1 of any year and may be filed no later than 5 p.m. on
the third Tuesday in February. The petition must be filed in every political
subdivision whose park facilities are proposed to be included in the district. If it is
signed by at least 100 qualified electors residing in each political subdivision whose
park facilities are proposed to be included in the district, a referendum is held at the
next succeeding spring election. A district is then created with a jurisdiction that
consists of each of the political subdivisions in which the referendum question is
approved, except that no district may be created unless the referendum question is
approved in at least one political subdivision.
Before a district may be created, the governing bodies of each of the involved
political subdivisions must reach an agreement that includes a number of
components, including a method to transfer title of the municipal or county park
facilities to the district and a method to select an arbitrator who will decide certain
issues that the relevant political subdivisions are unable to resolve. On the date that
a district is created, which is always on a January 1 following the initially elected
commissioners taking office, all assets and liabilities of the political subdivisions
with respect to park and recreational functions become assets and liabilities of the
district (except for certain pre−existing political subdivision debt related to park
facilities), all tangible personal property of the political subdivisions related to park
and recreational functions is transferred to the district, and all incumbent employees
of the political subdivisions having functions related to parks and recreation become
employees of the district.
In connection with park facilities, the powers of a district include the authority
to: acquire, develop, maintain, improve, operate, and manage the park facilities;
operate recreational facilities or programs; enter into contracts; employ personnel;
impose an impact fee on developers for park facilities; issue debt for capital
improvements to park facilities; and levy a property tax to carry out its functions.
The bill also grants these districts eligibility for various local aid programs that are
administered by the Department of Natural Resources. These programs include the
local park aids program, the urban green space program, and funding for county
A district is governed by a commission consisting of members who are elected
on a nonpartisan ballot at the spring election, except that, in an even−numbered
year, if the governing bodies of the political subdivisions whose park facilities are
included in a district can agree upon the organizing arrangements by June 1
following the adoption of resolutions or referenda questions approving the creation
of a district, the initial commissioners are elected on a nonpartisan ballot at a special
election that is held concurrently with the general (November) election in that year.
In districts having a population of 500,000 or more, there must be nine
commissioners who must be elected from election districts of equal population,
insofar as practicable. In other districts, the enabling resolution or petition must
specify the number of commissioners and whether the commissioners are to be
elected from election districts, at large, or by a combination of methods. The
boundaries of election districts are initially prescribed by the Government
Accountability Board and thereafter decennially by the commission. Vacancies are
filled by appointment of the remaining members of the commission. Each
commissioner must, at the time of taking office, reside within the park district and
within the election district, if any, from which he or she is elected or for which he or
she is appointed to fill a vacancy. The terms of commissioners are three years, except
that the initial terms are staggered such that the terms of approximately one−third
of the initial members of the commission expire in each year, and except that the
terms of any initial commissioners who are elected at the general election extend for
five months longer than the terms of other initial commissioners.
Under the bill, except for cities and villages that are located in more than one
county, the territory of a political subdivision may be in only one district, and no
county may contain more than one district if the county itself is part of the district.
If a city or village whose territory is in one district annexes territory that contains
park facilities that are located in a different district, that district is required to
transfer ownership of the park facilities that are located in the annexed territory to
the district whose territory includes the annexing city or village. The bill requires
the districts to negotiate a settlement to compensate the district from which the
territory was annexed for the park facilities that were transferred. If the districts
are unable to negotiate a settlement within 60 days after the annexation, the
districts must agree on the selection of an arbitrator who will decide the settlement
amount within 30 days after his or her appointment.
With the commission’s approval, the initial jurisdiction of a district may be
expanded to include any other political subdivision under procedures adopted by the
commission. Any procedures for expansion must allow the governing body of a
political subdivision to request inclusion in the district by resolution or at the request
of electors through a petition and referendum procedure.
The bill also provides two methods for a political subdivision to withdraw from
the district. Under the first method, if the governing body of a political subdivision
adopts a resolution declaring its intention to withdraw from the district and the
electors of the political subdivision approve the resolution in a referendum called for
that purpose, the political subdivision may withdraw from the district. Under the
second method, the electors of a political subdivision may petition the commission
to submit the question of withdrawal of the political subdivision from a district, and
the commission must then call a referendum in the political subdivision for the
electors to vote on whether to approve the question. If the question submitted at the
referendum is approved, the political subdivision must withdraw from the district.
Under either method, however, the political subdivision and the district must
negotiate a settlement to compensate the district for the park facilities that are
located in the political subdivision. If the district and the political subdivision are
unable to negotiate a settlement within 60 days after the political subdivision’s
resolution is either approved by the commission or approved in a referendum, the
district and the political subdivision must agree on the selection of an arbitrator who
must decide the settlement amount within 30 days after his or her appointment.
A district may dissolve by action of the commission, subject to payment of the
district’s debts and fulfillment of its other contractual obligations. If after
withdrawal of a political subdivision, the territory that remains in the district does
not consist of at least one political subdivision, the district must dissolve. If a district
is dissolved, its assets, liabilities, employees, pending matters and property must be
apportioned to, and become the responsibility of, the sponsoring political
subdivisions and any other political subdivisions that joined the district. The
commission is empowered to apportion these items among the responsible political
subdivisions. If a question arises as to the commission’s actions during
dissolution, the question must be resolved by an arbitrator who is selected under the
previously agreed to procedure.
Under the bill, a political subdivision may make loans or lease or transfer
property to a district. Generally, however, a political subdivision may not create a
park or expend any funds to support park or recreational facilities, or impose an
impact fee on a developer for park facilities, after a district levies a property tax.
When a district is created, the initial property tax levy of the district must be
imposed by the commission in an amount that equals the total operating levy, of all
participating political subdivisions, that is attributable to expenditures for park and
recreational purposes in the year in which the district is authorized, or in the prior
year — whichever is greater. Also in the year in which the district’s initial levy is
imposed, each sponsoring political subdivision must reduce its operating levy in an
amount equal to its previous year’s levy for park and recreational purposes, to the
extent that those functions have been assumed by the district. The district’s property
tax levy rate may not exceed one mill on each dollar of the full value of taxable
property in the district. Any increase in the property tax levy rate is subject to
approval by the electors of a district at a referendum. The district must hold such
a referendum at the first spring primary, spring election, September primary,
general election, or special election held throughout the district that is held at least
45 days after the date on which the commission adopts a resolution to increase the
levy rate. The district may use the tax revenue only for park and recreational
Under the bill, a district’s income is exempt from the income tax, a district’s
property is exempt from the property tax, property transferred to a district is exempt
from the real estate transfer fee, and sales of tangible personal property or services
to the district are exempt from all state and local sales taxes and use taxes.
Because this bill relates to an exemption from state or local taxes, it may be
referred to the Joint Survey Committee on Tax Exemptions for a report to be printed as an appendix to the bill.