The Secret Plan for Paid Parking in Milwaukee County Parks

Milwaukee County is moving ahead with plans to install paid parking in Milwaukee County Parks as early as this spring.  For the first time ever, visitors would have to pay an hourly fee to park in either parking lots or on streets (or both) in nearly every regional park in the Milwaukee County Parks System.

And it appears as if the County is trying to keep the extent of its plans from the public, as County Executive Chris Abele's proposed budget made only a passing reference to "revenue of $1.6 million dollars in included in the budget for the Milwaukee County Parks Department related to the institution of a pay-to-park program."

So little-noticed was this provision, in fact, that a source tells News/Talk 1130 WISN that most County Supervisors aren't even aware of its existence.

A subsequent amendment proposed by Supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic, Sheldon Wasserman, and Michael Mayo, Sr. directed that workgroup to "evaluate businesses operating in Milwaukee County parks" and ensure that they "pay fair market prices for parking. Additionally, the workgroup, in conjunction with Parks Administration, should examine current lease and management agreements for opportunities to increasecontributions from businesses operating in the parks."

Paid Parking Budget Amendment

Further details of the paid parking plan were outlined in a memo from interim Milwaukee County Parks Director Guy Smith to Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb on December 29th that indicated that the paid parking system will be "up and running no later than May 1, 2018."

Milwaukee County's Paid Parking Proposal

Neither the memo nor the budget itself specifies what the hourly rate to park in Milwaukee County Parks would be, but Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has previously suggested $1 per hour. However, the group Preserve Our Parks believes the cost would have to reach $3.50 an hour in order for the County to hit its $1.6 million annual goal.  

The Parks Department has already convened a "workgroup" of county employees and private business leaders to "finalize the parameters of the program," suggesting that the implementation of paid parking has been a foregone conclusion for some time.

Yet the public has never had a chance to weigh in and has largely been kept in the dark about the extent of the plans to charge for parking in Milwaukee County Parks.

When Abele announced in November that he would implement but not sign the 2018 county budget, he issued a statement vaguely referencing the possibility of paid parking: 

[T]here are many wonderful initiatives in this budget that I proposed and the Board has accepted: $1 million in new funding to help address the opioid epidemic; $1 million towards our efforts to reduce homelessness; investments in reforming our youth justice system; and a new source of revenue for our Parks.

Abele never elaborated on what that new source of revenue might be, but the amendment authored at about the same time as his statement started the process of exploring paid parking in all Milwaukee County Parks--not merely in lakefront parks, which had been discussed as early as mid-2016.

In December of 2017, though, Milwaukee County completed its transfer of the O'Donnell Park parking structure to the Milwaukee Art Museum, meaning that it no longer can rely on the millions of dollars in parking revenue O'Donnell Park brought in each year.  

The Milwaukee County Board voted in 2014 to block the planned sale of O'Donnell to Northwestern Mutual, a deal that would have netted the County $14 million.  Instead, the Board opted to simply give O'Donnell Park to the Art Museum, a costly move that left the County without a consistent source of parking revenue.

To make it up, Abele first began to float the idea of charging to park along Lincoln Memorial Drive as well as in parking lots at Bradford Beach, Lake Park, McKinley Park, Veterans Park, and North Point.  The proposed $1 per hour fee never gained traction and was left out of the 2017 budget.

Despite the very public dispute between Abele and the County Board over the 2018 budget, the County's specific plans for implementing pay-to-park in most county parks were never fully revealed to the public. Abele only publicly talked about the possibility of paid parking along the lakefront and bristled at the idea that the County Board would ban parking meters in county parks.  


Yet the memo obtained by News/Talk 1130 WISN makes clear that Milwaukee County is seriously considering paid parking in "all regional, parkway, and special use facilities."

So far along in its plan to implement paid parking is Milwaukee County that it is now preparing to issue "a competitive request for proposal that is intended to identify an operator of the County's paid parking system."  Because the County is so-cash strapped, it is unable to set up and maintain its own paid parking system and will have to contract with a third party vendor.

As the memo indicates, "the project will be operated on a concession basis wherein the operator pays the county a flat fee plus a percentage of revenue.  The operator will pay all operating expenses in a pre-approved budget without reimbursement of the County."

"It is anticipated that the fare collection will be conducted through a mix of multi-space kiosks offering pay-by-plate technology, sensor-based light pole technology, citation equipment, pass through gates, and seasonal and/or annual permits." 

A similar system has been a disaster in the Chicago, with a private parking lease deal costing the City hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that has instead flowed to the private investors who own the meters and garages covered under the agreement.

Those private investors keep approximately 90% of all parking revenue while Chicago keeps just 10%. If Milwaukee County enters into a similar agreement, paid parking would need to generate a whopping $16 million per year just for the County to achieve its $1.6 million annual goal. 

Milwaukee County's workgroup will present its findings to the County Board's Parks, Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday, January 23rd at the Milwaukee County Courthouse.  A public meeting on the proposal is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, February 6th at the Mitchell Park Domes.

The Milwaukee County Executive's office and Parks Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media often overlooks. Read more


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