MPRB PETITION PROPOSAL AND STAR TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

MPRB PETITION PROPOSAL AND STAR TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

The petition presented last week to the City Council and Charter Commission proposes this amendment to the city charter:

“The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board shall be a separate and independent governmental unit of the state of Minnesota with an elected board of commissioners. The Park and Recreation Board shall preserve and protect park land, lakes and open spaces as a public trust forever and shall have all powers and rights of a separate and independent governmental unit of the state as determined by the state Legislature.”

EDITORIAL: PARKS QUESTION IS ABOUT TAXING POWER

The following editorial about the Park Board’s’ campaign for independence appeared in the August 17, 2009, issue of the Star Tribune:

“Save Our Parks” is the slogan for the campaign that has sprung up in Minneapolis this summer for a charter change proposal that appears headed for the Nov. 3 ballot. It’s a slogan bound to resonate with voters whose pride in the city’s exceptional parks runs deep.

But it’s also misleading. If a petition drive succeeds, the question on the ballot won’t be about preserving any threatened parks. None faces an imminent threat. The prospect that any will face elimination in the future seems remote, even if the future brings considerable strain on city finances. Minneapolis voters seem much inclined to smite any politician who would dare to try to balance the city budget by selling parks.

What the nascent “Save Our Parks” campaign is really about is enhancing the taxing power of the elected Park and Recreation Board, the better to insulate park funding from the city’s broader budget challenges. Created 126 years ago with an end-run to the Legislature around a foot-dragging City Council, the Park Board in modern times has lacked full authority to levy property taxes.

That is what the proposed ballot question would give it. And that’s why R.T. Rybak, a park-loving, politically savvy mayor who is seeking a third term this year, issued an alarm as a supersized bundle of petitions was delivered to City Hall one week ago. The proposed amendment could result in “huge tax increases without accountability,” the mayor’s statement said. It “would give an independent body unlimited power to raise property taxes without fixing the core challenges facing our parks.”

What challenges? Rybak mentioned the usual ones: the need to improve water quality, recreation facilities and youth sports programs.

But the people behind the petition, Citizens for Independent Parks, see more challenges than that. They know well that the city is under heavy financial pressure because of the recession, state aid cuts and a pension program that’s badly in need of reform. They recognize that with its current quasi-independent status, the Park Board will be compelled to share in the city’s financial pain.

That appears to be true whether or not the voters approve another charter amendment already headed toward the ballot, eliminating the city’s levy-setting Board of Estimate and Taxation. That board reconciles the levy requests of the Park Board and the City Council. Though it has two independently elected members, it has been dominated in recent years by the mayor and City Council. The Park Board has but one of six seats.

Still, it was the prospect that the Board of Estimate and Taxation might be eliminated by the voters this November, and its levy-setting power assumed by the City Council, that inspired the petition for a truly independent Park Board. The Park Board has little sway over the setting of the city’s property tax levy now. Its leaders fear that they would have none if the City Council assumes the taxation board’s role — and that a slow starvation of city parks would commence.

That is far from a clear and present danger. But it’s a worry that is animating the petition drive. The effort has a number of respected former city officials behind it, including former Mayors Don Fraser and Sharon Sayles Belton. As he helped deliver 17,086 signatures to City Hall, Fraser said, “To let the parks fall into a period in which they are not adequately supported would be a tragedy.”

Indeed it would. But if, as appears likely, the Park Board charter amendment lands on city ballots this November, what will be needed is a thoughtful debate about whether “adequate” support for parks will be better defined by a City Council balancing all the city’s needs and resources or by a Park Board enabled to raise taxes on its own.