Can We Fix Our Parks?

The following article by Carol Becker was published in the April issue of the Southside Pride

Can We Fix Our Parks?


Minneapolis has 160 neighborhood parks and 49 neighborhood park buildings.  This excludes any regional parks like the Chain of Lakes or the Riverfront.  A study done last year by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board showed that we need $14 million a year to maintain these neighborhood parks. Right now, the city provides only $2.5 million a year to the park board to fix and maintain these parks.  Clearly this is not enough. Our neighborhood parks are worn and showing it. Tennis courts need to be weed whacked before they can be used.  The roof at Longfellow Park is being held up by two-by-fours.   Boilers go and there is no money to fix them.  By 2020, 70% of the infrastructure in our neighborhood parks will be past its life-span.

The question is what should be done.

I have been meeting with a group of citizens since last year to place a question on the ballot this fall to fund the maintenance and rehabilitation of neighborhood parks.  It would not add any new parks or park buildings.  It would not provide funding to the regional parks like the Chain of Lakes or Riverfront or any downtown stadium park.  It just fixes neighborhood parks. The park board is releasing a plan for what improvements would be made if this funding is approved in early April.  This plan will be based in part on criteria that they have developed working with diversity groups in Minneapolis.

The park board passed a resolution supporting this referendum and asking the City Council to put the question on the ballot this fall. The park board did this because the City Council is one of the four ways that this referendum can be placed on the ballot.  The other three ways are by the Charter Commission placing it on the ballot, the State Legislature placing it on the ballot or by the citizens collecting signatures to place it on the ballot.  This action was vetoed by the mayor, who said she did not like the inflation assumptions and or the language to prevent the city from taking the money.  The park board overrode the veto and sent the request to the City Council.

When the park board action got to the City Council, Council Members Barb Johnson and Lisa Goodman were concerned about the impacts of raising taxes.  They developed an option whereby the city would provide the funds for neighborhood park maintenance from city sources.  This would be the basis for a proposed historic agreement between the city and the park board where the city would provide the funding while still allowing the park board to control the spending.  The park board approved this resolution and the City Council began its deliberations last week.

The mayor also vetoed the parks resolution supporting this historic agreement.   Her issues were in two main areas: She does not believe that there are available revenues in the future and she would like to see money go to roads. The city came out with a study on road needs last month that found only 56% of residential streets are in good or very good condition and current funding levels mean continued deterioration.  Public Works proposed getting $30 million a year for 10 years to fix roads.

On late Friday, the mayor released an alternative proposal to fund about two-thirds of the needs of parks and of roads by increasing property taxes 1.4% a year over 10 years.  She did this without consulting the park board or the park referendum citizen group and it leaves about one-third of the park needs unfunded.  Now when you look at increasing taxes 1.4% a year each year for 10 years, you get a tax increase of more than 14% at the end of 10 years.

Anyone concerned about the level of taxes has to be concerned about the mayor’s alternative proposal.  There are a number of other funding sources available to use without increasing taxes substantially like the mayor proposes.  There are savings from pension investments made during the Great Recession and savings from paying off the library referendum debt.  The mayor has objected to this approach, arguing that the pension savings (about $7.3 million) could be taken away by the legislature, despite the fact that the legislature has provided aid from pension savings since 1980. The city also has other options.  It currently carries a fund balance in its General Fund higher than is needed.  It is going to decertify some of the tax increment financing districts, which will expand the tax base.  The state is also paying some of the current costs for the library referendum.  The city is also carrying funds in its General Fund which are slated for downtown projects.

And there is one other way of funding the parks referendum without raising taxes—capturing the growth in the property tax base.  There is a building boom in Minneapolis.  Our population is projected to grow by 10% this decade.  Everywhere you turn you can see new buildings.  For the last four years, we have had over a billion dollars in new construction and existing permits in the pipeline do not show a letup.  The result is that the property tax base increased 10% last year alone.  Apartments alone increased 29% last year.  It is possible to capture this tax base growth and use it for needed investments without raising taxes like the mayor proposed.   A detailed plan on how to do this has not yet been put together, however.

Does the city really have enough money to fix the parks? The city approved $74 million of funding for the Target Center last month, money that could have been used for parks (or roads).  This project will replace the whole outside of the building, redo most of the concourses and enhance the luxury boxes.  If there are enough revenues for the Target Center, there should be enough revenues to fix our neighborhood parks.

The city is going to debate this over the next month.  Regardless, one thing is certain.  Neighborhood parks can’t fix themselves.  If we don’t find money to fix parks, we will be closing buildings and taking infrastructure out of usage.  And that is not the right future for Minneapolis.