Report: Milwaukee County faces mounting maintenance needs for parks, cultural facilities

Backlog of repair and replacement needs "seemingly insurmountable"

Milwaukee County lacks the capacity to finance the mounting capital requests of its parks, recreational and cultural facilities under its self-imposed borrowing limits, according to a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

Milwaukee Public Museum

Researchers found the county faces “a seemingly insurmountable” backlog of repair and replacement needs across its facilities, according to the report. It would need to more than double its spending on cultural institutions, from $6.2 million to $13.9 million, and increase spending nearly tenfold on parks, from $2.4 million to $23 million, in 2019 alone to fund existing capital requests.

Among the county’s pressing projects are the Milwaukee Public Museum and Mitchell Park Domes, both of which the Policy Forum has previously said need to be replaced or fully renovated within the next few years.

The museum is currently seeking more than $100 million from private donors, the state and possibly the county for a new building downtown. A county task force is studying the Domes’ future, with a potential overhaul estimated to cost between $40 million to $95 million in county and private funds. Those two projects could compete with each other for private funding, the report warned.

They also come at a time when county officials are also considering how to fund construction of a possible $250 million justice center to replace its aging Safety Building at 821 W. State St.

Under current policy, the county has a self-imposed limit of increasing borrowing by no more than 3 percent on non-airport projects over the prior year and requiring a 20 percent cash match.

Meeting all parks, recreation and cultural capital requests for the next four years would require a 135 percent increase above spending in the past four years, an untenable option under current policy, according to the report.

“Borrowing for such projects, which comprise only a portion of the county’s overall infrastructure needs, would rise from more than two-thirds of the county’s capacity to 97 percent by 2022,” the report said.

The report warns that past efforts to limit borrowing, at the cost of delayed maintenance and repairs, has created the county’s current backlog of projects.

County Executive Chris Abele issued a response to the report Friday:

“This report illustrates several of the challenges we have in Milwaukee County with regards to our infrastructure. Our County Parks alone have built up more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, and growing expenses for mandated services mean we have less and less local funds available for parks, public safety and other priorities We’re working to build a coalition throughout our community and across Wisconsin to create a state funding solution and address our biggest funding challenges. This is the only way to expand possibilities for the future of Milwaukee County to not only tackle our ongoing needs, but to build a stronger community.”

Other findings in the report:

  • A significant portion of parks infrastructure needs to be replaced within the next decade, including 85 percent of parking lots and surface yards, 75 percent of walkways, 54 percent of Oak Leaf trails and basketball courts, 48 percent of tennis courts, and 47 percent of large buildings other than the Domes.
  • The issue is particularly acute at the county’s lower-profile cultural institutions, such as the Charles Allis Art Museum and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, where water leak damage is threatening the buildings and collections.

The report does not make a specific recommendation to the county but the Policy Forum plans to release a report next spring with policy options, strategies and recommendations to address the county’s infrastructure challenges.

Milwaukee County lacks the capacity to finance the mounting capital requests of its parks, recreational and cultural facilities under its self-imposed borrowing limits, according to a new Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

Milwaukee Public Museum

Researchers found the county faces “a seemingly insurmountable” backlog of repair and replacement needs across its facilities, according to the report. It would need to more than double its spending on cultural institutions, from $6.2 million to $13.9 million, and increase spending nearly tenfold on parks, from $2.4 million to $23 million, in 2019 alone to fund existing capital requests.

Among the county’s pressing projects are the Milwaukee Public Museum and Mitchell Park Domes, both of which the Policy Forum has previously said need to be replaced or fully renovated within the next few years.

The museum is currently seeking more than $100 million from private donors, the state and possibly the county for a new building downtown. A county task force is studying the Domes’ future, with a potential overhaul estimated to cost between $40 million to $95 million in county and private funds. Those two projects could compete with each other for private funding, the report warned.

They also come at a time when county officials are also considering how to fund construction of a possible $250 million justice center to replace its aging Safety Building at 821 W. State St.

Under current policy, the county has a self-imposed limit of increasing borrowing by no more than 3 percent on non-airport projects over the prior year and requiring a 20 percent cash match.

Meeting all parks, recreation and cultural capital requests for the next four years would require a 135 percent increase above spending in the past four years, an untenable option under current policy, according to the report.

“Borrowing for such projects, which comprise only a portion of the county’s overall infrastructure needs, would rise from more than two-thirds of the county’s capacity to 97 percent by 2022,” the report said.

The report warns that past efforts to limit borrowing, at the cost of delayed maintenance and repairs, has created the county’s current backlog of projects.

County Executive Chris Abele issued a response to the report Friday:

“This report illustrates several of the challenges we have in Milwaukee County with regards to our infrastructure. Our County Parks alone have built up more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, and growing expenses for mandated services mean we have less and less local funds available for parks, public safety and other priorities We’re working to build a coalition throughout our community and across Wisconsin to create a state funding solution and address our biggest funding challenges. This is the only way to expand possibilities for the future of Milwaukee County to not only tackle our ongoing needs, but to build a stronger community.”

Other findings in the report:

  • A significant portion of parks infrastructure needs to be replaced within the next decade, including 85 percent of parking lots and surface yards, 75 percent of walkways, 54 percent of Oak Leaf trails and basketball courts, 48 percent of tennis courts, and 47 percent of large buildings other than the Domes.
  • The issue is particularly acute at the county’s lower-profile cultural institutions, such as the Charles Allis Art Museum and the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, where water leak damage is threatening the buildings and collections.

The report does not make a specific recommendation to the county but the Policy Forum plans to release a report next spring with policy options, strategies and recommendations to address the county’s infrastructure challenges.

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