Harrison Park is one of nearly 160 neighborhood parks that face a deepening backlog of maintenance issues.  Credit: Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Harrison Park is one of nearly 160 neighborhood parks that face a deepening backlog of maintenance issues. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

New funding plan emerges for city’s parks

Updated: March 18, 2016 - 12:33 pm

City and park leaders want to allocate existing city resources to solve a growing neighborhood park funding gap.

Two veteran City Council members are proposing to allocate a mix of existing city funding sources as an alternative to a fall referendum that would raise money for maintaining neighborhood parks.

City Council President Barb Johnson (Ward 4) and Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) revealed the new plan March 16 that would guarantee, by city ordinance, about $13.5 million annually from various sources for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to fix aging neighborhood parks, many of which face disrepair.

The option comes as the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has been campaigning for more than a year around a referendum that would raise roughly $15 million per year for the next 20 years to close a growing $111 million gap to repair neighborhood park assets like wading pools and recreation centers.

Park Superintendent Jayne Miller said the plan, which received its first approval from park commissioners on March 16, would bring together the historically separate government agencies.

“I think it’s a great compromise,” she told The Journal. “From the very beginning our intent was to work through the issues with the City Council, and doing it through an agreement instead of a referendum I think is better for the community, and it’s better for our two agencies working together.”

Beginning in 2017, the proposed ordinances — the same agreement for each agency — would devote an additional $8 million to the board, plus about $2.5 million that the board has historically received from the city. As part of the proposed agreement, the city would also recommend that the Board of Estimate and Taxation increase the board’s annual tax levy by $3 million for the life of the ordinances, in addition to annual increments. The increase, based on a 1 percent increase of the city’s 2016 tax levies, is intended for the board’s operating costs.

The new proposal would ramp up a year sooner than a successful referendum with an initial $1.5 million in start-up money from the city’s contingency funds by the end of 2016. The plan would then run through 2036 with joint review from the board and city every five years.

The resolution, first publicly presented to council members during a March 16 Committee of the Whole meeting, doesn’t specify funding sources for the additional $8 million, but authors Johnson and Goodman said there could be several options, including a combination of levy, cash or bond proceeds.

Mayor Betsy Hodges had previously vetoed the board’s proposed ballot language regarding the referendum though the board overrode her decision. David Prestwood, a spokesman for the mayor, said Hodges, as she did with the referendum, has concerns with guaranteeing city money to the board, especially given gaps in infrastructure funding.

“That guarantee does not exist for the police department, for the fire department or anything else in the city, so it would be very odd to provide a guarantee for the park system without any of these other things,” he said.

Hodges has acknowledged a need for consistent investment into parks and previously recommended the board develop its proposed ballot language with more flexibility in spending referendum money on unforeseen fiscal pressures.

“Her door is open, and has been open, to the Park Board and the council on this, and some people chose this time to not walk through the door and go it alone,” he said.

Park commissioners unanimously voted March 16 to approve the plan and to direct Miller to begin drafting the board’s ordinance in coordination with the city, which will have to draft its own version.

President Liz Wielinski said benefits of the agreement outweigh the fact that it doesn’t cover all of the board’s annual $14-$15 million funding gap.

“It’s less money, but it solves a lot of problems,” she told The Journal prior to the vote. “This agreement covers everything so it’s worth giving up a few extra million there to make sure we have everything solved at once.”

The agreement puts to rest some of the board’s worries regarding other funding the city could have changed if it had gone forward with a referendum. Under the proposal, the rates the board pays administrative fees to the city would be tied to the rates the city applies to its own operations. The plan also sets the board’s local government aid to a stable 11.79 percent.

The Park Board agrees to cease its referendum efforts as part of the proposal, though if the city significantly reduces the proposed funding for at least three consecutive years, commissioners could once again pursue a ballot measure.

Commissioner Scott Vreeland (District 3) emphasized the fact that the funding will begin to chip away at a backlog of maintenance projects and repairs, albeit slowly.

“This isn’t going to fix everything, and it’s not going to fix everything right away,” he told commissioners. “I don’t want to overpromise or under deliver.”

The proposal drew concern from some City Council members who are worried where the money will come from and where it could potentially be better spent. Earlier this month the Council heard a presentation on an annual $30 million gap in Minneapolis street repairs and reconstruction projects.

“I support funding parks, but I also care about funding police and fire services, affordable housing, our investments in racial equity and I am very concerned that we not continue to defer maintenance on our streets, creating essentially a giant balloon payment for future city councils and tax payers to deal with,” Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said in statement posted to her Facebook page.

The plan also garnered praise from several Council members, including Council Members Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) and Jacob Frey (Ward 3). City leaders in both agencies said the proposal establishes a newfound relationship between the City of Minneapolis and the semi-autonomous Park Board.

“There was a time when the City Council and Park Board did not work together, but this is apparently a very different time, and I’m very happy to see it,” said At-Large Commissioner John Erwin.

If successful, Council Member Goodman said the plan would be a “historic step forward” for Minneapolis.

“After two years of work, studies, community process and community leadership, the park system has proven there’s a need. They’ve proven that the community is willing to stand up and ask us to resolve this issue, and we are obligated as leaders of the city to do so,” she said.

The ordinances, which have yet to be drafted, are expected to be voted on by the City Council on April 15 and the Park board on April 20. Miller said she still plans to present a five-year plan next month for spending what the board would get if it continued to pursue a referendum.

“The good news is that while often times we have conflicting goals with the city, we were able to come together on something that was important to the citizens of Minneapolis and move something forward,” said District 4 Commissioner Anita Tabb.