Park Board ponders closing one in four rec centers

A consequence of potentially massive state budget cuts -- and it might not be enough

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board member Walt Dziedzic said it's time the board think about closing one out of every four recreation centers in the city as a way to deal with the looming budget crisis.

"Maybe we have too many buildings. Maybe we are too big," said Dziedzic, who represents northeast Minneapolis. "We ought to start thinking about closing two recreation centers per district. I can't see how we will survive the cuts we are going to have to make. Until things get better, it might be one of the answers."

The city is divided into six park districts. Closing two per district would mean closing 12 of the city's 49 centers, or 25 percent.

The key number in budget talks is $13.8 million, Dziedzic said. That is how much Local Government Aid (LGA) the Park Board gets from the state. It amounts to more than 27 percent of the Park Board's budget.

No one knows yet what Gov. Tim Pawlenty will recommend as he tries to shore up a $4 billion state budget shortage. At a recent City Council study session, LGA cuts as high as 50 percent were discussed -- meaning as much as $6.9 million per year from the Park Board.

The Park Board expects to hold numerous public meetings throughout the city in the coming months to get public comment on budget cuts and/or increased fees.

Rich Theis, the Park Board's finance manager, could not say how much the board would save by closing a recreation center. The board would save personnel costs by closing a center but would still have some fixed costs, such as building heating and park trash pick-up.

Theis and other Park Board number-crunchers are putting price tags on a long list of direct services -- from rec centers to mowing grass and plowing paths -- in preparation for the budget-cutting process.

Superintendent Mary Merrill Anderson said if the state cuts LGA in half, "cutting 12 recreation centers won't get us there."

At the Jan. 15 Park Board meeting, Anderson proposed freezes on hiring, overtime, new professional services, equipment purchases and discretionary travel. She has started following those policies already, she said, but the Board was expected to vote on them Jan. 22, after the Journal's deadline.

Park Board staff outlined a timetable for budget decisions.

  • Early March: Board holds retreat to discuss implications of the Governor's Feb. 18 budget address.

  • Mid-March to May 15: Board holds community meetings, hosted by park councils, to discuss budget options.

  • May 21: Two days after the legislature adjourns, the Board holds a public hearing on short-term budget solutions.

  • May 28: Special Board meeting to adopt short-term budget strategies.

    Park Board member Annie Young asked about going to referendum to increase the budget, an idea the board has discussed numerous times in the past. This time, it appeared to have less traction, especially since City Council leaders have approved a policy to increase citywide property tax proceeds by 8 percent per year for the next decade -- without state cuts figured in.

    "My problem with a referendum, it is the easy solution," said Jon Olson, a Park Board member representing north Minneapolis. "I have great concern about taxing my constituents out of their homes to pay for the parks."