What’s next for NRP?

City Council gears up to discuss future of Neighborhood Revitalization Program

With the clock winding down on the 20-year lifespan of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), members of the Minneapolis City Council have acknowledged that they need to begin an in-depth discussion about the future of the program and its impact on the city’s pocketbook.

Yet with less than 20 months to go before NRP reaches the end date specified in the legislation that created the program, the City Council is still working out a definitive timeline for discussions.

Council President Barb Johnson (4th Ward) said discussions would likely begin later this spring or early this summer. While council members have been careful to point out that the city needs to work with NRP partners, such as Hennepin County and the Minneapolis Public Schools, Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) said the city should take a leadership role in planning the future of the program.

“I think that we probably should have been doing a better job at looking at this before now,” Gordon said. “It’s a difficult issue and NRP has a lot of jurisdictions.”

Council members and Mayor R.T. Rybak have been frank in admitting that NRP is an issue that’s politically tough to tackle, which may be one reason discussions haven’t already been jump-started. Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said NRP – a program that puts money into the hands of neighborhood organizations – is viewed as an entitlement by many neighborhood groups rather than as a program created by legislation with a limited time and purpose. When politicians try to look at the scope and the future of the program, he said they often find themselves politically bruised.

“NRP is the third rail of local politics,” Remington said. “You don’t see politicians too eager to jump into that.”

NRP Director Bob Miller said if political leaders let NRP lapse after 2009, he’s convinced they’ll end up recreating it at some point down the road. The program, he said, has been successful in getting thousands of city residents involved in their communities and creating real, measurable improvements. He said the discussion about the future of NRP is already on a tight timeline and while it can happen in 20 months, it will be difficult.

“It will not be easy to do,” Miller said, adding that some parts of the discussion really need to be done in six to nine months so neighborhoods can effectively plan for their future.

Some neighborhood groups are being proactive by putting together their thoughts on the future of NRP in a form that they can send to city officials. One of those groups is the Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA), which Executive Director Mark Hinds said feels NRP should be extended beyond 2009.

“Most people in Minneapolis engage in the city through neighborhood organizations,” Hinds said, noting that neighborhood organizations are really the only program in the city that unites a diverse group of residents through geography.

If NRP funding goes by the wayside, Hinds said many neighborhood organizations would likely follow suit. That would eliminate the contributions of groups such as LNA, which Hinds said has organized hundreds of hours of volunteer work in the neighborhood that have included cleanup efforts and resident crime patrols. The Lyndale neighborhood also used NRP dollars to revitalize its housing stock, he said.

Matt Perry, chair of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association, said while some residents might not know a lot about NRP or their neighborhood organization, they tend to notice the work that results from the efforts of those organizations. For example, he said many residents have expressed their enthusiasm for the renovations at Lyndale Farmstead Park that EHFNA helped fund with its NRP dollars.

Perry said he looks at NRP in terms of what it has contributed to the city, and it’s easy to see that it has been fairly effective. Yet he said the future of NRP is one of the hottest questions in neighborhood politics right now, and he’s directing EHFNA to look at other funding alternatives for the future that include more public-private partnerships.

“We’re certainly willing to take more responsibility,” Perry said, adding, however, that neighborhood organizations do need some public funding simply to maintain the continuity that volunteers can’t always provide.

At a recent Kingfield Neighborhood Association meeting, residents expressed concerns to Rybak about losing NRP dollars and the community involvement opportunities the funds have created.

Rybak said he wants the city to “pull back” from looking at NRP as the only way to bring together neighborhoods.

“NRP is one tool and it’s a good tool,” he said. “But we really have to stop and look at how the community is getting engaged.”

The City Council offered a glimpse of what its upcoming NRP discussions might look like at a meeting at the end of March. At that meeting, members recommended that the Legislature hold off on a bill that would extend NRP another two decades, and at the same time, they also rejected a proposal by Gordon to send further discussion about the future of NRP to a council committee. Several members argued that a debate about the future of NRP should first happen in a larger context that considers things such as the program’s governance structure and the city’s tax policy. NRP uses tax-increment financing as the tool to generate funds for neighborhoods, with a goal at the onset of the program that $20 million a year would be channeled to neighborhoods for 20 years.

One of the frustrations several council members expressed about the proposed legislation is that it failed to address a future funding mechanism for the estimated $150 million cost of extending the program, prompting Rybak to call the bill “essentially an unfunded mandate.” But Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said legislators put that bill forward in part because of the Council’s lack of action in taking up the issue of NRP’s future.

If the bill was a tactic at the Legislature to prompt the city into planning sessions on the future of NRP, it worked. Gordon said the Council may appoint a work group to closely examine NRP and it’s his hope that when the full Council begins discussing the program, it will coordinate some of the debate with a discussion that the city has already begun that examines community engagement.

“I think this gives us a great opportunity to look at what works and what doesn’t work,” Gordon said. “There have been enormous successes with NRP, but I don’t know that it has accomplished everything everybody wanted it to.”

The chief concern for many council members is how the city will pay for the program going forward. Remington said NRP was created during a time when the city was much better off financially.

“There’s no magic pot of money sitting around,” Remington said. “We’re struggling like hell to figure out how we can pay for three to four cops let alone a program that costs millions of dollars.”

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said discussions about funding NRP could include revising or even lifting the Council’s self-imposed 8 percent cap on annual property tax increases. Glidden said she doesn’t think the discussion will be about whether to go forward with NRP but rather what form it will take.

“It’s going to be about a program that can change with the times and how can we fund such a thing?” Glidden said.

Miller said he doesn’t think a future installment of NRP needs to be funded at the same level as the first 20 years of the program. Something like $10 million a year – half the annual amount designated for the current program – would be enough to maintain a strong investment in neighborhoods, he said.

Yet Johnson said future questions around NRP shouldn’t solely focus on funding. For example, she said, whether the program should shift its focus from housing should be discussed. One of the things she views as a valuable asset to the program is the voice it has given neighborhood organizations.

“I would like to preserve the neighborhood integrity that’s been developed around it,” Johnson said.

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com.