The following article by Eric Best was published in the June 15, 2015 edition of the Southwest Journal and updated on June 22. See end of article for meeting dates.
Neighborhood Parks Facing Budget Crunch
Community meetings in southwest Minneapolis will give people a chance to weigh in on future
of city’s parks.
Photo by: Ellen Schmidt
The city’s 157 neighborhood parks are in financial trouble.
The Park Board has identified a funding gap of $140 million to meet the maintenance needs of the city’s parks system.
About 80 percent or $111 million of the gap is with neighborhood parks. By 2020, the board estimates that number would grow by $46 million if funding levels remain consistent.
Park leaders say neighborhood parks need $14 million plus inflation each year to maintain assets, such as wading pools, playgrounds and recreation centers. The Park Board’s budget, however, is about $5 million for maintaining those features.
“It’s a perfect storm,” said Park Board President Liz Wielinski. “We’re really trying to make sure that we can maintain the system so that we stay No. 1.”
Park leaders are planning a series of community meetings throughout Minneapolis for residents interested in weighing in on the future of their neighborhood parks. Meetings will be held in southwest Minneapolis June 23–July 28.
The semi-independent Park Board’s budget is roughly $89 million. For every $1 Minneapolis residents pay in property taxes, about 8 cents goes to the park board.
Despite the lack of investment in its neighborhood facilities, the city’s park system has received national honors for several years, sharing the top spot this year with St. Paul in the Trust for Public Land’s park rating system. However, park systems nationwide are facing Minneapolis’ same problem.
It’s not a new problem for the board, which has taken a number of proactive steps to address the issue, including letting go of 136 full-time positions, cutting nearly a fourth of its workforce between 2003 and 2012. In the past few years the board has also better assessed and improved operating efficiency that resulted in $2.3 million in savings annually.
Despite the savings, the city’s neighborhood parks still remain vulnerable to shortfalls.
Regional parks like Theodore Wirth, Minnehaha and Minneapolis Chain of Lakes receive support from regional, state and federal funding sources, whereas neighborhood park funding is almost entirely from residents.
Demand for the neighborhood parks has also increased, with the number of visits growing from 5 million in 2008 to 6 million in 2014.
Park staff are accessing even more of the board’s capital needs, including 86 bridges, 131 parking lots and other infrastructure, so these estimates will likely increase.
With current numbers, the biggest gaps are projected to be nearly $49 million in natural-turf athletic field renovations and $29.7 million for recreation centers by 2020. By 2040, these numbers are projected to grow to approximately $220 million. But gaps exist across the board, from mowing park grass to maintaining pedestrian bridges.
Park staff are working to put together profiles of each park’s capital needs, which will be available at public meetings this summer.
Park Board looks nationwide for solutions
In a recent presentation to the City Council’ Committee of the Whole, Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller outlined other cities’ solutions in maintaining their aging parks.
The most likely option before the board would be a referendum for a property tax levy either in 2016 or 2017. Ann Arbor, Mich. has had a property tax levy to fund parks for the past few decades. In 2006 and 2012, voters approved six-year tax levies to maintain the system. In addition to $5 million in annual tax revenue, the Ann Arbor City Council passes a resolution requiring the city to maintain a level of support to the park general fund.
It could receive general obligation bonds. Thanks to a very popular measure approved last November, Portland’s larger park system will receive up to $68 million in bonds to make repairs and improvements to its parks, preventing additional park facility closures.
It could also go the route of Seattle’s park system. Voters approved the creation of a metropolitan park taxing district to address $270 million in capital needs to maintain the city’s parks. Just 33 cents per $1000 of the value of assess property is estimated to generate nearly $48 million in the levy’s first year.
It’s important to note that the Park Board is unique from most systems nationwide insofar as it’s independent from the City of Minneapolis, rather than a city department like other systems.
To educate neighborhoods about the problem, Miller and board commissioners will be hosting public meetings between June and September. A schedule of the meetings is available on board’s website at minneapolisparks.org.
By December, commissioners expect to make a decision on a strategy, whether that’s maintaining current investments, looking to private funding or pursuing a referendum for more tax revenue.
Parks Commissioner Brad Bourn, who represents Southwest Minneapolis, said a referendum is the only politically feasible option before the board. He said the board’s budget conversation should also include talk of cost-saving measures, including balancing the amount of administration with the amount of staff who are maintaining the parks.
The board has some idea of how voters are thinking about a property tax increase. A board-funded study from Morris Leatherman Co. found that 77 percent of Minneapolis residents polled either supported or strongly supported a property tax increase to maintain the board’s current assets, whereas just 11 percent opposed it. That’s up more than 40 percentage points from a 2009 study from the same firm.
Though the board has had these conversations for the past decade, news about funding shortfalls could be a surprise to some park users. A vast majority — 94 percent — of those polled said the appearance and maintenance of the city’s parks, which includes regional parks, was good or excellent.
That fact could actually hurt the board if it pursues a referendum. If voters perceive additional funding as enhancing the city’s parks, fewer could support a measure in increase taxes. Nearly 60 percent opposed additional property taxes to enhance park facilities.
However, commissioners argue the survival of neighborhood park facilities is stake.
“There is a very real possibility that parks in Southwest… will be on the chopping block by the end of this,” Bourn said. “Folks that live near small rec centers really need to engage in the process and talk about how important these parks are to their neighborhoods if they want them to stay.”
Meeting schedule to discuss the future of Southwest Minneapolis parks
Tuesday, June 23, 6–8 p.m., Linden Hills Recreation Center, 3100 W. 43rd St.
Thursday, June 25, 6–8 p.m., Kenwood Recreation Center, 2101 W. Franklin Ave.
Tuesday, July 7, 6–8 p.m., Whittier Recreation Center, 425 W. 26th St.
Monday, July 13, 6–8 p.m., Painter Recreation Center, 620 W. 34th St.
Thursday, July 16, 5:30–7:30 p.m., Loring Community Center, 1382 Willow St.
Monday, July 20, 6–8 p.m., MLK Recreation Center, 4055 Nicollet Ave. S.