Parks update

Budget talk now, referendum talk for tomorrow

With its finances continuing to tighten, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board leaders appear to be leaning toward proposing a referendum for next year’s ballot.

Talk of such a move was mentioned several times as commissioners dove into Superintendent Jon Gurban’s proposed 2009 budget, a document that appears to be seen largely as a stop gap, one that focuses on keeping spending down while raising as few fees as possible. The budget comes on the heels of expectations that the world’s tough economic times will lead to more people choosing “staycations” over vacations.

“While we’ll have a smaller budget, we’ll have increased use of our parks. It’s going to be a very difficult equation,” Gurban told commissioners.

The budget doesn’t propose closing any of the park system’s recreation centers, and there are no fee raises similar to last year’s. The biggest increase is expected at parking meters and with parking tickets.

Meanwhile, 15 unfilled staff positions will stay that way until at least halfway through 2009. That worried Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson, who said that decision only postpones inevitable problems.

“We really do need to fill [those positions],” she said.

During a Nov. 5 public hearing, Audie Gillespie, representing workers’ Union 363, expressed concern that the impact of the budget’s tightness would be greatly felt at the staff level and consequently at the Park Board’s basic services level.

“It’s cutting into the bone,” Gillespie said.

Commissioner Scott Vreeland said that under its current financial strain, the Park Board is down to a point that it can only afford to fix failing infrastructure. If the money flow doesn’t grow, he said a slide in service would continue. Things that fail simply would have to be removed — not replaced.

With that in mind, President Tom Nordyke said he has a hard time seeing the Park Board surviving without asking for a referendum, a statement to which several other commissioners approvingly nodded their heads.

“I think we should think about that, maybe for next year,” Commissioner Walt Dziedzic said. “We’re running out of money. …

“We don’t have to go for $60 million or $30 million, but boy, a few million would really help,” he said.

The public has another chance to give input on the Park Board’s 2009 budget at a city Truth in Taxation meeting set for 5:05 p.m. Dec. 1, Room 317, City Hall. To view the budget, go to
www.minneapolisparks.org and click on “About MPRB” and “Park Board Budgets.”

Minnesotans vote yes; Park Board impact unclear

One financial bright spot for the Park Board is the Nov. 4 passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which is expected to create a stream of money, of which the board will receive a percentage. Exactly how big that will be, however, remains unclear.

Appearing before a city committee the day after the constitutional amendment was approved, Park Board President Tom Nordyke said that while the passage was one step, the next moves will have to be made by the state Legislature. The state has yet to determine the process for how the new money will be divvied up, he said.

“It could be $2 million,” Nordyke said. “It could be a $4 million, $5 million impact on our budget.”

Commissioners, residents weigh presence of sponsorships

Finally getting a chance to delve into the topic of corporate sponsorships in Minneapolis’ parks, the Park Board found their questions overflowing.

What’s more appropriate: A beer ad or a Lowe’s sign? Should parks be a complete refuge from logos? Should children further be exposed to corporate presences? What’s better: A Toyota Bicycle Tour or a Toyota Park?

The Park Board is expected to have a total of three study sessions to answer those questions and form a policy on how best to recognize corporate relationships, which it expects to grow in number because of its tight economic conditions. The first of those sessions, held on Oct. 23, came to few conclusions, but it allowed commissioners to take a hard look at a number of scenarios and consider the appropriateness of different forms of sponsorships.

If nothing else, commissioners learned that there probably isn’t an existing model that would perfectly apply to Minneapolis. General Manager Don Siggelkow included case studies of such cities as Chicago and Perth, Australia. None, Siggelkow said, has policies the Park Board could easily copy and paste.

But that shouldn’t stop the board from forming a policy, he said, arguing that had the Park Board had a policy when hardware store chain Lowe’s offered money in exchange for banners earlier this year, the board would have been in a better position to negotiate. Instead, staff found itself without clear boundaries, Siggelkow said, leading to a public outcry when word came that the board was considering putting up six-foot logo-emblazoned banners in some parks.

Recognizing the hotness of the corporate presence topic, the discussion was brought to the Lakes District Council, a neighborhood sounding board for the Park Board. There, residents repeatedly asked what the Park Board would consider its limitations.

Matt Perry, executive director of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association, said the board should take a hard look at what corporations it would feel comfortable interacting with. Find groups that align with the Park Board’s mission, he said, and the public outcry would probably be smaller.

“I think Lowe’s intuitively rubs people the wrong way,” he told Commissioner Annie Young.

Others argued going a step further. Figure out which groups mesh with the Park Board’s mission, they said, and then seek them out — don’t just wait to have them come to the board.

“You’ll be approaching it with strength,” said Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, “rather than always respond.”

The next board study session will focus on advertising and probably will be held in January, Siggelkow said.

Parks update

Park construction crew falls victim to tight budget

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was able to decrease a half-million-dollar operating gap and won’t have to make significant staff cuts in 2009. But there will be at least three layoffs, and more than a dozen vacant full-time positions won’t be filled until at least halfway through next year.

Those changes were highlighted in a budget strategy report to Park Board commissioners during an Oct. 20 committee meeting. The meeting originally was scheduled to be a discussion about Park Board expenditures, but it instead became a marathon discussion about such issues as the Nicollet Island Pavilion, the Target Field sales tax and the Park Board’s beverage contract. It wasn’t until near the end of the third and final hour that the budget became the topic of conversation.

Finance Director Karen Robinson said that what had been noted as a $505,000 operating gap at a previous meeting is down to $134,000. She said every department in the Park Board had been asked to find ways to work under smaller-than-usual revenue increases. The gap should be down to zero before the budget is finalized in December, Robinson said.

One of the key cuts in 2009 will be the elimination of an in-house construction crew. Superintendent Jon Gurban was expected to propose cutting three positions and reassigning existing workers.

“We don’t have a project right now, so we don’t have the work anyway,” Robinson said.

The Park Board also will consider delaying the filling of 15 full-time vacancies until at least June, when it will have a clearer sense of what the 2010 budget climate will be.

“We are taking an extremely conservative approach,” Gurban told the commissioners.

The superintendent was expected to present his proposed 2009 budget on Oct. 23, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press.

Twin City Catering likely to part with event space

Twin City Catering, the company that leases space on the first floor of the Park Board’s headquarters, likely will be allowed to jettison its event center.

“They’ve been in there for five years, and it’s just not been a successful venture,” Don Siggelkow, Park Board general manager, told commissioners at an Oct. 20 committee meeting. “… Basically, they would like to get out of that space.”

The catering company is one of several Park Board-land-based businesses being charged property taxes for the first time this year. Siggelkow said Twin City’s tax bill is part of the reason the company can’t afford to continue paying rent for the event space.

Without those 7,200 square feet in Twin City’s lease, the Park Board will be receiving about $85,357 less per year in rent.

Commissioners asked Siggelkow what would become of the space. Will the Park Board seek out other event-type businesses? Will it try to find organizations with Park Board-type missions? Or will the hall stay empty?

Siggelkow didn’t have a definitive answer, but he said there was a possibility it could be used as additional room for Park Board employees.

“At this point, we don’t think it’s appropriate for event space,” he said.

While the lease has not officially been renegotiated, Siggelkow said, the $85,357 revenue drop already is reflected in Superintendent Jon Gurban’s 2009 proposed budget.

Lake of the Isles gets its summer look

Had it not been for a bad weather combination, Lake of the Isles could have looked this summer like it does right now.

In June, hordes of new plants were put into the ground. There were roses, dogwoods and junipers, honeysuckles, rhododendrons and evergreens. New bluegrass seeds were sewn.

But the timing was off. Because of a long, wet spring, the plantings were done relatively late. A drought arrived shortly afterward, and many of the plants died off. Two-thirds were removed.

Andy Lesch, project manager with the Park Board, said that’s all in the past. In September, the removed shrubs were replaced and new grass was sewn. The lake now looks much like it was intended to look in previous months, he said.

It’s (almost) winter. Time for more sports.

There’s no snow on the ground (yet), but registration starts this month for the Park Board’s winter youth and adult sports and league programs.

Boys and girls ages 9–14 can register to wrestle or play hockey, while basketball is available for boys and girls ages 9–18. For girls ages 9–18 who want a head start on next year’s softball season, the Park Board also is offering winter softball clinics. Those begin at the end of January, but registration starts this month.

Adults 18 and older can play volleyball, basketball, pond hockey and broomball.

Fees and registration dates differ by park. Go to www.minneapolisparks.org, or call 230-6400.