When it comes to taxes I don't make anyone happy. I'm a Republican and I philosophically oppose most efforts to increase the size and complexity of the Machine. That makes my more liberal-minded friends - like Socialist - furious. So be it; better that than the near-empty wallet his politics would dictate.
But I'm also not ignorant of the fact that this isn't 1776, and the government has more responsibilities - right or wrong - than the version run by guys in powdered wigs. Some taxes are necessary, and yes, there are situations where raising a tax may be the only viable option.
This year residents will be voting on the Milwaukee County Sales Tax referendum, known around here as the Park vote. Arguments for the tax pin the very future of our park and transit system on the outcome. If I agreed with that assessment, I'd say yes in a heartbeat. But I remain unconvinced.
For that reason, I'd urge you to vote 'no' on November 4th.
I've always been justifiably proud of Milwaukee's Park and Recreation system, which covers 15,000 acres and puts green space within walking distance of every resident. That's more than 4 times as much park land, per capita, as our neighbors in Chicago enjoy.
In addition to open land there are public pools, playgrounds, wading pools, and festival grounds scattered throughout the county. It is, without question, a shining jewel and something we can be proud of calling our own.
But in recent years the park's have fallen by the wayside. I've written about it here, in this blog, as the changes became visible: restrooms are locked to the public, parking lots go unplowed, ball fields are left to grow wild, flower beds are left unplanted and the driveways go unrepaired. Public pools (including the one I frequented in my youth and my daughter is using at this very minute) are being slated to close, and the wading pools all my children enjoy are becoming few and far between.
The estimated cost, according to a member of the Park Advisory Commission, of bringing the system physically back up to par - not improving it - is close to $300 million.
Why? The parks are run by the County. In the last twenty-two years the system's share of the tax levy fell 21%, down to a mere 8% in 2008. The reason for the decline? In large part, the increased cost of a (much) busier justice system. Then, a few years ago a major pension scandal shook up the county and brought the rare Republican into office. The operation of the system has improved, with even proponents of the tax calling the Park director's 'masters of doing more with less' but the damage is done. By necessity we continue to fund outrageous pension and post-retirement benefits.
The parks need money. No question. I concur that a tax specific to the upkeep of the parks is in order. But adding a 1% increase to our sales tax, without permanently earmarking where those proceeds would go, is just asking for trouble, especially with a governmental body with a track record of corruption. Even if the current Board would guarantee the money would be funneled exclusively to the park and transit system, it has no legal power to force that agreement on future members.
So the 1% increase that pays for the parks next year could be cut in half the next, with proceeds funding increased union contracts or silly pork barrel projects. That's not good enough.
What worries me too is that the idea of funding our park system, which in and of itself is a worthy cause, is apparently not a convincing enough argument for the tax proponents. They feel it necessary to cloud the vote with popular, tried and true add-ons. What are future uproar are they proactively trying to smother?
You can spare me the ridiculous argument that even with the increase our sales tax would be less than Chicago, Minneapolis, or Boston. Well . . good. Would you prefer it otherwise? Nor is the always popular 'it'll reduce property taxes' argument worth discussing; even if you could convince me it would happen, I'm sure the city would discover some 'need' to more than make up the difference.
[You'll note that I tossed the word 'transit' in a few times. The original tax increase was to be .5%, but it was quickly ramped up to pay for new buses and maintenance on our transit system. There are a thousand arguments for and against our current bus system, but maybe if people weren't assaulted on a daily basis on the bus, ridership wouldn't be on a decline and you could afford the buses you crave. Just a thought.]
Provide Milwaukee County with an independent body, accountable to the taxpayers, whose sole purpose is the maintenance of the park system and I will be more than happy to sign on the dotted line. Our parks are something that's worth saving for future generations - but not at the expense of commonsense, and not by handicapping the resources of those very generations.
For now, vote 'no' to a park system tax increase.