Few things anger
the public more in Milwaukee County than cuts in the parks system.
We’ve grown accustomed to strolls on shady paths, swims on hot days
and hitting the golf course when we have extra time. In short, we
expect that our quality of life won’t be eroded.
Last month County
Executive Scott Walker closed many pools early as a way to save a few
dollars. The closings, he pointed out, were necessary to close the
budget deficit. It was a budget deficit that was created when he won
approval of his 0% tax levy budget that was fraught with artificially
high revenue projections and underestimated expenses.
The public was
outraged about the pool closings. Facing a week of 90-degree
temperatures, parents were angry that their children would not be able
to seek refuge from the heat in the County pools. Seniors were angry
that they couldn’t get relief from ailments like arthritis because
Walker closed the pools they relied on to keep their joints moving.
Walker saw this as a threat to his political future and looked for
someone to deflect blame to. He found his scapegoats.
fired all five of the top managers in the parks department for
allegedly giving him bad advice on how to close the $2 million hole in
the County budget. Walker didn't just fire them, he made their firing
part of his media circus. He called the media to inform them and only
after he was sure all the cameras were at the Parks department, did he
fire Department heads. This assured that when they walked out
with their packed boxes, the television cameras would be there to
understand that it was not Parks Dept. heads that made the choice to
shortchange their budget -- it was Walker. Walker was looking for a
way to make good on his tax freeze pledge and after he was in, he
got an unexpected civic lesson. The rampant waste he screamed about on
the campaign trail wasn't there.
knew they would deficit and, from my column last spring, you knew
also. Walker asked Parks Director Sue Baldwin how to fix the budget
hole he created. Knowing that there wasn't any other way to generate
$2 million more in revenue by the end of the year, she said the
only way to do it was to cut services.
But the story
doesn’t end there. Walker had a gag rule in place for all of his top
managers. If there was some good news that needed to be told, Walker
was the one that would put out the press release and speak to the
media. It would be Walker that would get the credit and department
heads would have to face the cameras if there was bad news to be
shared. It was a condition of employment and they knew they had to
acquiesce to Walker’s demands as long as they were working for the
Youngs, the former Deputy Director of the Parks department pointed out
that he’d never seen people treated this poorly in all his years
with Milwaukee County.
Kenny, the former Director of Operations for the Parks department,
lamented what is happening to the parks department. “I’m
disappointed that he (Walker) doesn’t articulate a vision.
Simplistic answers that play to the public like ‘freeze property
taxes’ don’t plan for the future. Sometimes he makes a commitment
but then for whatever the reason he doesn’t feel like he has to
fulfill the commitment he’s made. I question that type of
leadership” said Kenny.
directed parks managers to look at mass privatization of the parks
department as was done by the City of Chicago. Kenny said “he
(Walker) believes it’s best if as much as possible be privatized.
It’s contrary to the vision of Charles Whitnall.” Whitnall is
credited for being the father of our current County park system.
told parks managers that they had to offer up at least $1,000,000 in
cuts to make up for an overall county budget shortfall. “He said he
was looking for layoffs. When someone tells you to cut a million
dollars worth of worker salaries without understanding the
consequences, that’s troubling” added Kenny.
not surprising that parks managers were frustrated. They did all they
were asked to do and they presented a budget to Walker that kept
spending down but were then penalized for it. He put them between a
rock and a hard place and then firmly placed blame on them for
carrying out decisions he made.
question of what happens next is entirely up in the air. A new interim
Parks Director has been named who has never before put together a
budget. What’s worse, top managers are now gone so he has no one to
turn to when it comes time to ask questions. Our County parks are
losing their luster.
is crumbling, pools are closing, invasive species are invading our
parks and maintenance is sliding. Walker has now issued a new
challenge to all elected officials in the County to sign his pledge to
not increase taxes next year – as though he believes they’ve been
happily raising taxes all along.
are consequences to being unwilling to pay for services and one of
them is decreased property values. It may take a few years for
property values to erode, but it will happen. People want to live and
raise their families in communities with parks, playgrounds and pools.
Great schools, well maintained roads and places to interact make
communities attractive. When the commitment to these core services
disappears, property values plummet and families with children move
is a time to do the business of the people and there’s a time for
politicking. We as citizens have a responsibility to expect our
elected officials will do the work, research the details, and make
decisions that are in our best interest. This is what a Representative
democracy is all about. When those same elected officials choose to
make glib, bumper-sticker campaign promises to solve complex problems,
the public has a responsibility to seek the truth.