Minneapolis park commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to ask for a voter referendum that would raise roughly $300 million over two decades in order to close a growing funding gap in neighborhood park maintenance.
The vote comes after a year of outreach on the needs of the city’s nearly 160 neighborhood parks, which the board estimates are facing a roughly $111 million backlog of aging assets — everything from wading pools and athletic fields — which could otherwise close.
“This is something that’s going to be critical for the future of the City of Minneapolis, and it’s incredibly important for each of our neighborhoods,” said Commissioner John Erwin.
The next step is getting the measure on the November ballot. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is unable to do that by itself, so Superintendent Jayne Miller will be reaching out to the Minneapolis City Council, their closest partner who could move the referendum forward. If a majority of council members don’t support it, the board could also look to the city’s Charter Commission, the Legislature or a citizen petition.
The referendum, which would be tied to the city’s taxable property base, would raise about $15 million per year over 20 years. The proposed tax levy would begin in 2018 and is limited to .0388 percent of the estimated market value by the city per year.
Miller estimates it would cost taxpayers with a $190,000 home about $66 a year, those with $300,000 homes about $112 a year and those with $450,000 homes about $174 annually.
Miller plans to come back before the board in April with details on where the estimated $77 million generated in the referendum’s first five years will go.
Much of the money would go toward the system’s aging facilities, many of which it first built in the 1970s and 1980s. Last year, the board released profiles of each neighborhood park that detailed the life of each asset, such as a playground, and when it would need to be repaired or replaced. Additional funds from the referendum would allow the board to do everything from replacing ball fields and mowing grass more often to creating new parks and keeping recreation centers open.
The board’s preliminary plan would be to divert $20 million to maintaining the system, which would push up care of facilities. The superintendent gave several examples, from mowing every two weeks instead of 10 days, repairing a full mile of sidewalks instead of a quarter mile each year and replacing site amenities every decade instead of every 20 years.
Between 2018 and 2022, the referendum would raise an estimated $14 million to rehabilitate and renovate park assets like the system’s recreation centers and installing lighting and security upgrades.
A majority of the nearly $80 million — about $43 million — raised in the first five years would go toward investment and realizing the board’s master plans, which would lead to new facilities and new parks across the city, especially its most under-served areas.
The board says the referendum would halt a $9.3 million gap it faces each year in maintaining the city’s parks. Neighborhood parks need an additional $3 million to keep up regular operations like mowing and tree pruning.
Despite the huge backlog of maintenance, the system continues to receive honors and more demand from park users than ever before. Last year, the city’s parks received a first place award, tying with St. Paul, from the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index. Neighborhood parks also saw a million more visitors in 2014 than they did in 2008.
Commissioners voted 8-0 to move the ballot initiative forward. Commissioner Brad Bourn, the referendum’s most vocal critic on the board, was absent for the vote.
President Liz Wielinski highlighted their previous efforts to reduce costs. For example, the board reduced its workforce by nearly a quarter between 2003 and 2012, a trend that Miller is now reversing.
“I never would be up here proposing this if I hadn’t thought we had done the internal work needed to streamline this organization so that we know for sure this is money that we desperately need,” she said. “I think this is really something that’s going to be important going forward for the future of the Minneapolis park system.”
Park Board commissioners have long sought additional funding to repair aging facilities, but haven’t been able to successfully campaign for the money under previous city leadership. Commissioner Annie Young, who has been on the board for more than 25 years, said she’s hopeful that the board is finally trying to get the funding.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go, but it is something that is desperately needed,” she said. “So far, so good.”
The next step will be meeting with the City Council. If a majority of council members don’t move the proposal on this year’s ballot, the board has other options.
A majority of the 15-member Charter Commission could authorize the referendum, while the City Council would have to approve the ballot language. The Legislature could also get it on this year’s ballot. Commissioners will meet with some lawmakers next week.
Miller told commissioners that she would be reaching out to these parties in the next couple weeks.
Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, said he is spearheading a citizen effort to rally around the referendum. They would need to collect approximately 6,900 signatures between May and July to authorize a referendum, according to the board.
Here is the Park Board’s approved ballot language:
MINNEAPOLIS PARK AND RECREATION BOARD
MAINTAINING AND IMPROVING MINNEAPOLIS NEIGHBORHOOD PARKS
Shall the City of Minneapolis be given the authority to levy additional property taxes equivalent to .0388 percent of the estimated market value of the city per year for twenty years for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to maintain, repair, and improve neighborhood parks, including repairing and improving recreational facilities to provide increased opportunities for children to recreate and experience nature outdoors, provide at-risk youth with recreational opportunities, improve access to parks and recreational facilities for people with disabilities, increase park safety, improve neighborhood parks in under-served areas of the city, and enhance natural areas.
BY VOTING ‘YES’ ON THIS BALLOT QUESTION, YOU ARE VOTING FOR A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE.