Parks update

Peace Garden bridge becomes a priority

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board pledged to fast-track a project that would bring back a footbridge to the Lyndale Park Peace Garden.

For the majority of two decades, the garden contained a Japanese-style cedar bridge. Installed in 1985, the bridge didn’t handle Minnesota weather particularly well, and by the start of this century, it had deteriorated dramatically. It closed for safety reasons and was removed in October 2007.

That happened as a Park Board-authorized Peace Garden Project Committee was in the process of raising thousands of dollars for art projects. It raised more than $76,000 to build the origami-like Spirit of Peace sculpture, dedicated in 2006.

While the committee has been able to raise an additional $48,500 since that time, Lakes District Manager Paul Hokeness said the group has all but tapped out its resources. Installing a new bridge — the committee’s other goal — would cost $65,000.

The Park Board’s financial travails are well documented, but Hokeness said it would be wrong to leave the bridge project hanging at this point, even if it would cost the Board $16,500.

“It’s one of those things that just has to be done,” Hokeness said about building the bridge. “When people raise $50,000, we feel obligated to do our part.”

He presented that argument during an Oct. 1 meeting of the Park Board’s planning committee and was met with mutual agreement from commissioners and the system’s superintendent.

“It’s pretty unsightly the way it is,” Commissioner Bob Fine said. “I think we should do something about it, and I think we should do it quickly.”

Superintendent Jon Gurban said construction on the new bridge should begin in the spring, a comment that Hokeness said is the closest thing to a timeline he has for the project. He said he hopes the bridge will be open by June.

As for funding, Hokeness said the board has several options from where to draw the $16,500, including its regional parks fund and an influx of Local Government Aid. Compared to the breadth of the board’s entire operating expenditures, he said the amount is relatively small and should be found fairly easily.

To ensure the new bridge doesn’t meet the same fate as its predecessor — becoming structurally unsound within 20 years — it will be made of more resilient materials, such as Brazilian ipé wood. It also will be wider, allowing for wheelchair access, Hokeness said.

Park Board talks revenue

Staring down a $505,000 operating gap, the Park Board’s 2009 budget discussion on Oct. 1 focused on ways to generate more revenue.

Commissioners heard suggestions relating to an array of park services, including parking, tournaments and concerts. Steve Buchal, manager of special services, spoke about the possibility of raising parking ticket fees to $40 from $35. Jessica Berg, concert event coordinator, spoke about combining the summer movies and music in the parks programs and pairing with a corporate sponsor.

Don Siggelkow, general manager for administration and development, discussed the possibility of hosting more annual events. Examples included an ice-fishing tournament on Lake Nokomis, a whiffle ball tournament and a complement to the fall Minneapolis Bike Tour to be held in the spring. Siggelkow also mentioned the possibility of putting an excursion boat back on the Chain of Lakes.

Commissioners spent a lot of time talking about Recreation Plus, the Park Board’s low-cost daycare program. Launched in 1989, it acts as a place for children of all backgrounds to go before and after school. It costs just $115 per month.

“This is one of the great secrets of this town,” said Richard Mammen, director of community recreation.

Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom called herself a recent convert to the program, coming from spending $600 per month on daycare that didn’t include any of the recreational activities the Park Board’s program offers. She said she was shocked to find it priced as low as it is, saying there was clear room for the fee to be reconsidered.

That suggestion received some backlash from Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson, who said that while some parts of town probably could afford a more expensive Recreation Plus, there are other parts where parents can barely pay $115 per month.

Overall, commissioners didn’t seem particularly excited about any fee-raising proposals. But as was repeatedly pointed out during the meeting, for every fee that isn’t raised, an expenditure has to be lowered — meaning potential cuts to services.

Expenditures will be the focus of the Park Board’s next budget discussion. Commissioners originally were scheduled to tackle the issue on Oct. 8, but that meeting was rescheduled for 5–7 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Theodore Wirth Chalet, 1301 Theodore Wirth Parkway.

Park Board regular meeting rescheduled

Speaking of meeting dates being shuffled around, the Park Board also rescheduled its regular meeting originally set for Oct. 15. Commissioners instead will meet Oct. 23 — a Thursday, rather than the usual Wednesday.

Parks update

A strained talk about budget

The Park Board’s administration and finance committee has started official discussions about the 2009 budget, and if a Sept. 17 presentation by the board’s financial staff is any indication, it’s likely to be a difficult year to plan for.

According to the presentation, 43 permanent full-time and 21 part-time or seasonal positions have been cut from the board since 2003. There was a noticeable public outcry last year when land-use fees increased in price. Meanwhile, the Park Police’s mounted patrol is gone, there has been less tree trimming, and stump removals are falling behind. The board’s current revenue still won’t be sufficient to fund its current service level.

While some relief could come from adjusting health- and dental-care rates, there likely will have to be cuts made in operating expenses, according to the presentation.

Finance Director Karen Robinson told commissioners that the Park Board is scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as cutting without having a serious effect on services.

While the board makes independent decisions and creates its own budgets, it is financially tied to the city. When asked about its economic travails, many with the Park Board point toward a tax-levy cap imposed by the city as the root cause. That cap has been similar for years, and Commissioner Bob Fine said he tried this year to ask the city to loosen the restriction. His proposal failed at the Board of Estimate and Taxation level.

“I’m going to tell residents from now on about this,” Fine said at the Sept. 17 Park Board meeting. “When they complain about why has it been three to four years for my stump, why aren’t we maintaining paths the way they would like to see us get it done, why aren’t we cutting grass as often, why aren’t we maintaining the system to the extent they want — I’m going to clearly be telling people we’re being restricted by the [City Council] and the mayor.”

The Administration and Finance Committee was expected to dig deeper into the budget at its Oct. 1 meeting. There will be a Committee of the Whole work session on Oct. 8, and Superintendent Jon Gurban is expected to present his recommended budget on Oct. 23.

The board is expected to adopt the budget in December.

Park Watch (again) draws commissioners’ ire

Park Watch cofounder Arlene Fried might have been absent from her first Park Board meeting in many months, but the watchdog group — and frequent board critic — drew several angry comments from commissioners on Sept. 17.

“I would like to think their real name is Park Fault, because I’ve never seen a positive element come out of this group,” Commissioner Bob Fine said.

He was referencing their involvement in a story published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that chronicles how the Park Board drew up a land-use lease with the builders of the new I-35W bridge.

Flatiron Constructors Inc. is quoted in the Sept. 12 article as saying that it felt it was charged an excessive fee — reportedly $153,340 — to use the Bohemian Flats property.

After the article ran, Fried had a letter published in the Star Tribune arguing there were further critical details left out, such as that commissioners never approved the Flatiron lease. She also wrote that the Park Board tripled its usual lease fees to create the $153,340 value.

That left Fine and Commissioner Scott Vreeland to use their petition and communications time at the Sept. 17 meeting to question Fried.

“I just don’t understand why Arlene Fried feels so compelled to ask us to give back $153,000 to Flatiron,” Vreeland said. “They’re going to make $25 million,” referencing a bonus Flatiron is expected to qualify for by finishing construction ahead of schedule.

Fine said Park Watch would have been critical no matter what the board had done.

“Can you imagine if we didn’t charge [Flatiron] a penny?”
he said.

This isn’t the first time the Park Board and Park Watch have openly feuded. When in 2007 then-Park Board President Jon Olson cut off Fried during open time, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter in Fried’s defense arguing her First Amendment rights may have been impeded.

Park Police officers’ jobs retained

More than a dozen Park Police positions that had been at risk of being cut were saved.

On Sept. 2, the Minneapolis School Board voted to replace Park Police with city officers as the schools’ police liaisons. That decision left 17 Park Police positions in limbo and, because of a union contract, would have cut officers from the least senior positions upward.

Brad Johnson, Park Police chief, said a combination of job transfers and a retirement saved 10 jobs. An agreement reached between the Park Board and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis saved the remaining seven spots through the end of 2008, and Johnson said the 2009 budget should provide the necessary money to keep everyone employed.