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Shake-Up Raises Questions About Park System’s Future

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

If you live in or near Riverwest, chances are you’ve reaped the fruit of Larry Kenny’s labor. “As you know, I have a great affection for this area,” he says, a couple days after showing up with his family for Riverwest’s music in the park, Gordon Park Grooves. Kenny, former associate director of the Milwaukee County Parks Department, played an instrumental role in renovating and rebuilding Gordon Park at Humboldt and Locust. He was in the unenviable position of explaining to 200 frustrated people why the neighborhood pool was getting removed. After many community discussions and much input, the plan for the current park was put in place. In the first year after its renovation, Gordon Park was expected to generate around 30 pavilion rentals. Instead it was booked for more than 100 engagements. This year it has seen regular use as well — as a place for picnics, community meetings, wedding receptions, playing and splashing, soccer games, dog walking, and various other activities. Kenny refers to it as “the current ‘trophy park’ of the parks system.” < “Gordon Park was our first real attempt to involve the community in the full planning process,” he says of the park’s $2.5 million overhaul. “In the past the Parks Department determined what needed to be done; we have been trying to individualize the parks and make them more community-based.” Kenny is pleased that Riverwest residents turned to Gordon Park as a meeting place recently to discuss community issues after racist flyers were found in the neighborhood last month. Parks Department Shake-Up But it’s not just Gordon Park that Kenny wants to talk about. Kenny and four other top parks officials were recently called into County Executive Scott Walker’s office and given three choices: resign, retire, or be fired. This came after a memo to all County departments from Walker, which read, in part: “Milwaukee County government is facing a fiscal crisis. The county is trying to close a $90 million dollar gap in the 2004 budget. . . We are also projecting a $7.8 million deficit in the 2003 budget. . . department heads will be required to implement a plan to layoff non-represented and represented employees.” Parks Department administrators and other county department heads — except the Sherriff’s Department — were asked to cut millions from their budgets. With only 348 out of 443 Parks positions filled, there wasn’t much room to make cuts, Kenny said. They recommended closing the pools and golf courses early. That was the most recent money-saving measure in a long list of cuts the Parks Department has had to make in recent years. “How does spending on parks compare to the county government?” he asks. “Are we the problem? Because we always seem to be the solution.” Still, he doesn’t speak with the bitterness of a man who has lost the job he poured his heart into for nine years — although he has. Kenny, who had planned to retire in November, is calm and thoughtful as he talks about his passion. “The community has to understand what’s happening to the parks and push for what they want the parks system to be,” he says. “We need to have a public discussion — maybe a referendum — around this issue, not anger and finger pointing.” Kenny is genuinely concerned both about the existence and maintenance of a healthy parks system and about the layoffs in store for workers that are employed in many communities to take care of neighborhood parks. He harkens back to an earlier time, where each park had a full-time county employee that kids and parents knew and trusted. There was, he believes, a stronger sense of community involvement in the business world. “A lot of private money helped support the big projects,” he says. “Something like this would never have happened 40 years ago, when you had businesses investing in the neighborhood parks for the good of their employees. Businesses are not paying any attention to neighborhood parks.” The drama that played out in late August, with Walker giving orders to close down all but a couple suburban pools and three par 3 golf courses, then reopening many of them two days later and forcing the top five Parks officials to resign, offers a glimpse at the turmoil and debate going on over the parks system. Walker has proposed privatizing more aspects of the parks system, a move similar to one Indianapolis decided to take in recent years. Kenny points out that this move has not been the most beneficial for that city’s parks. “It works for some things, but you can’t really do that across the board and preserve the kind of system we have.” Looking over a budget sheet, Kenny describes the department’s recent financial history. It is clear that spending on Parks has not kept up with other County budget expenditures. In fact, the amount of money supporting the parks from the net tax levy is less today than it was 20 years ago. That’s partly because the Parks have become more reliant on revenue — but in an off-revenue year, this dependence can be devastating. On creating a separate parks board, Kenny believes that will add administrative costs without solving the problems. “What we need to do is really think about and answer this question: what do people want out of the parks sytem? What should its purpose be? Then we can cut anything that’s unnecessary.” The Parks Department has already gotten out of the business of running the Senior Centers located in many parks. Those facilities are now run by the Department on Aging. It is also starting to get out of the aquatics business. Other than the Cool Waters water park, many of the county’s pools are money-losers, and Kenny says they were built in a time when there was limited access to pools. “Now if people want a pool party, they’ll rent a room at a hotel. If they want to go swimming, they’ll go to the Y. There’s much less interest in the old, outdoor pools.” But he believes there are many good things the Parks Department can and should do. Foremost is preserving a healthy system, because when some parks start to fail, it’s bad for the entire system, Kenny believes. And he’s quick to counter the current “popular property tax freeze” craze with reality. “When you get into this mantra of, ‘Freeze my property taxes,’ you’re going to see services suffer,” Kenny points out. He puts it all in perspective using one of Milwaukee’s most popular beverages. “I was at Irish Fest last weekend and someone asked me how much the parks system costs us — look at it this way, (for each person in the county) to support the parks system for a year is about as expensive as buying seven beers. And if you have just one more, you’d improve the parks system.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss