By GERRY BRODERICK March 9, 2016 MJS
As the community struggles with the decay and indefinite closing of the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes, we are all left to consider the implications of years of deferred maintenance on our parks and cultural amenities.
If the Domes’ epitaph is to be written, it ought to be: “They died of malignant neglect.”
Successive administrations, particularly those of Scott Walker and Chris Abele, have ignored the needs of our parks and cultural amenities. The results have been devastating, and we are now witnessing the dangers of deferred maintenance writ large on the falling concrete at the Domes.
While various parties have attempted to cast blame for the deterioration of our parks on one another, there are certain facts that cannot be ignored.
The County Board has made several attempts to provide funding for parks maintenance, and has been rebuffed either by veto by the county executive or inaction by his administration.
For example, in 2012 the county executive vetoed a Parks Capital Development Plan from his own Parks Department calling for the expenditure of $75 million over five years. In vetoing the expenditure, he wrote to the board that “the county is in no position to dedicate $75 million dollars to fix problems that go back decades.”
Parks Director Sue Black was fired later that summer by Abele. A full explanation was never provided to the public, but other staff followed her out the door, leaving the department with a growing gap in institutional knowledge.
Meanwhile, in the wake of a 2009 audit, “A Tale of Two Systems: Three Decades of Declining Resources Leaving Milwaukee County Parks Reflecting the Best and Worst of Times,” estimating that parks maintenance needs “likely exceed $200 million,” the board in 2015 authorized an expenditure of $5 million for parks infrastructure projects not eligible for general obligation bond funding.
The county executive vetoed the measure, writing in his veto message that he owed it to Milwaukee County’s taxpayers “to do everything I can to protect their interests in the face of such irresponsible use of their money.” He went on to call the expenditure “flippant and irresponsible.”
This comes from a man who was more than willing to go behind closed doors in Madison and commit $80 million of taxpayers’ money for a new arena for the billionaire owners of the Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s not just the Domes that have suffered.
But the Domes are the most demonstrable example of the effects of deferred maintenance on our parks. And in fact the board acted to provide $500,000 in 2015 to develop a long-term maintenance plan for their deteriorating conditions and place netting for public safety. But the administration did not act, and now we have chunks of concrete falling from the structures.
Since when is it “flippant and irresponsible” to protect our parks? Tell that to the couples whose weddings have had to move from the Domes as a result of their indefinite closure. Our parks are a great part of what makes Milwaukee County a special place to live, and I have no doubt they are among the amenities that our residents value the most.
The future of these iconic structures is apparently in doubt, and the administration is scrambling to find solutions that the board already has provided.
It is sad that we should come to this point. But in the end, the Domes have become the victims of maintenance issues that have required attention for years.
They were killed by a failure to act. They were killed by a refusal to act.
The Domes have been a symbol of Milwaukee County’s creativity and commitment to our parks. Now, they are a symbol of neglect, and we are faced with the unfolding tragedy of the loss of Milwaukee County’s iconic structures.
As a retiring supervisor, I hope my successors find a way to preserve the Domes. Just as important, I hope they can find ways to protect our “emerald necklace” of parks and open spaces from the narrow-minded thinking that taxpayers do not want to spend our resources for that protection. Continuing a sound quality of life in our community depends on it.
Gerry Broderick is a Milwaukee County supervisor and chairman of the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee.