Milwaukee County’s bus system may obtain the sales tax funding voters endorsed in November 2008, but the state legislature has split the total package that citizens asked for; Assembly Bill 504, introduced October 15, 2009 by representatives Tamara Grigsby, Frederick Kessler, Jon Richards, Christine Sinicki, Barbara Toles, and Leon Young, cosponsored by Senator Lena Taylor, asks both houses to separately authorize the half cent sales tax for parks, recreation and culture, which was partly responsible for inspiring voter support.
While the advisory referendum was a carefully assembled coalition effort in Milwaukee County, Governor James Doyle and state legislators generally were unwilling to vote on a bill mixing transit and parks. However, sustained local support for the half cent tax supporting transit may depend on finding ways to honor the entire local proposal, funding parks as well. Like the transit measure, funding parks with a half cent sales tax would remove this area of county government from the property tax rolls permanently, lowering the property tax levy by $38 million.
As soon as Governor Doyle announced new legislative proposals January 19, restoring the half cent sales tax dedicated to the transit system, questions were raised as to whether Milwaukee County voters had endorsed this plan, since voters were asked to support a full one cent sales tax for transit, parks, and emergency medical (EMT) services. Since state legislative approval is necessary before a county can adopt such a tax, the advisory referendum amounted to a request from local voters for state approval. The state has declined to approve the entire request in a single bill.
County Executive Scott Walker has made no secret of his desire to come as close as possible to shutting down both the county bus system and the park system entirely, or to gut them as much as possible. Although he has campaigned as an advocate of lower property taxes, he is resolutely opposed to any alternate funding of operations he would prefer to terminate. Walker has also sought to cut back paratransit service for Milwaukee citizens with disabilities to the tiniest range allowed by federal law; the more bus routes he can cut, the more he can shrink the alternate paratransit system. Throughout his terms in office, he has “saved money” by deferring maintenance and allowing both systems to deteriorate. Unless bus service is discontinued, and the parks closed or sold off to private developers, these deferred costs will eventually become a burden in future property tax years, or alternate funding, such as the sales tax proposal, must eventually be provided.
Milwaukee County’s 140 parks, preserving 15,000 acres of open space, have been a feature of life enjoyed by both city and suburban residents since 1907, when the first Parks Commission was established. Charles B. Whitnall, a charter member of the Parks Commission, proposed acquiring land in what were then rural areas to sustain a necklace of green space along waterways, including Whitnall Park, named for him in 1932. The current budget is $2 million less than it was in the mid-1980s, while keeping up with inflation would require a budget almost twice as large. Walker has proposed to cut the parks budget another 20 percent. Assembly member Richards, a sponsor of AB 504, reports that the county now assigns three maintenance workers to every hundred acres of parkland, while Chicago’s park system employs 41 workers per hundred acres.
The Assembly Ways and Means Committee voted 6-4 earlier this month to send the bill to the full chamber. It will also need to be approved by the senate and signed by the governor to become law. Preserve Our Parks reports that Milwaukee area representatives David Cullen, Margaret Krusick, and Tony Staskunas are not yet committed to supporting the legislation. The same assembly members have also hesitated to vote for state authorization of the sales tax to support the county transit system, approved by county voters in the same referendum.