Park Board pushes for larger tax levy increase in 2015, referendum next?

The following article by Ben Johnson was published in the July 29, 2014 issue of the Southwest Journal.

Park Board pushes for larger tax levy increase in 2015, referendum next?

Scheduled 2.9% increase won’t cover 2015 budget; referendum considered to address long-term neighborhood park funding shortfall

Park Board commissioners are warning the scheduled 2.9 percent increase to its 2015 property tax levy will leave a projected $1.3 million budget deficit, resulting in painful cuts to programs and services next year.

Minneapolis has a 2 percent levy increase penciled in next year to help fill gaps in the Park Board’s operating budget. A separate, 0.9 percent increase will be added to that to fund the second year of an eight-year reforestation program, which was created to replace trees lost to the Emerald Ash Borer and severe storms.

The 0.9 percent tree levy will likely be left alone, so now the Park Board is focusing on convincing the public and the mayor’s office, which releases its preliminary budget Aug. 15, that doubling its planned operating levy increase to 4 percent is the only way to maintain essential services.

“We can’t nickel and dime anymore. We have squeezed and squeezed and I think the public should know if we don’t get 4 percent there will be services cut, and it won’t be pretty,” said Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller at the July 16 commissioner meeting.

Most commissioners agreed on the push for a 4 percent increase, although some questioned whether it was politically viable. District 4 Commissioner Anita Tabb was the only commissioner to advocate for sticking to the 2.9 percent increase.

“I have a lot of homes for sale in my district because people want to move out of the city because the taxes are so high,” she said. Tabb’s district includes Downtown West, Bryn Mawr, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles and the northern half of Lake Calhoun.

The 4.9 percent increase would be the Park Board’s largest since 2007. Last year the Park Board raised its levy 2.1 percent, but that went entirely to the reforestation program.

According to a report staff submitted to commissioners, every percent increase in property taxes nets the Park Board $496,270, increasing the average homeowner’s ($186,900 median value) property taxes by $2.

Last year the Park Board made up 72 percent of its $66 million budget from property taxes. The rest was collected in roughly equal contributions from local government aid given by the state and money from fees, fines and other revenue.

Referendum to save neighborhood parks?

At the July 16 Park Board meeting commissioners hinted at the possibility of holding a referendum as early as next year to address its chronically underfunded neighborhood parks. According to Miller, scheduled maintenance and improvements to the neighborhood park system has been underfunded by $69 million over the last 10 years and it’s getting worse — this year the Park Board invested $6 million into its neighborhood parks, $11 million short of what was needed.

“[Neighborhood parks] are going to fall down if we don’t find a different plan, so is this the time to spend a year to develop a referendum, to try to get that initial funding so that we’re not going constantly downhill?” asked Park Board Vice President Scott Vreeland.

Those dire projections don’t take in account future expansions to the park system. There’s no plan currently in place to fund maintenance for The Yard in Downtown East, a new neighborhood park North Loop residents are pushing for, or the dozens of acres of new riverfront parkland envisioned in the Above the Falls Master Plan and RiverFirst projects.

“I’d like to encourage staff to research alternative methodologies to raise these funds,” said at-large Commissioner Meg Forney. “I think the referendum conversation is appropriate, but I also think there’s a lot of other ways we may be able [to raise more money.]”

Whether the Park Board will be eligible for federal assistance in paying for cleanup costs tied to last month’s flooding adds to next year’s budget uncertainty.

So far the list of counties approved for federal aid is limited to southern Minnesota, because counties further north, including Hennepin, are still waiting for water to recede to complete damage assessments.

If Hennepin County is approved for federal aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay for up to 75 percent of cleanup costs, and the state could cover up to the remaining 25 percent.

Park Board Finance Director Juli Wiseman said she has been tracking all of the cleanup costs the Park Board has incurred, included extensive damage to Meadowbrook and Hiawatha golf courses and the mudslide that has kept West River Road closed, but she said it was too early to estimate a total dollar figure.