The other Board

Few are fighting to save it. Surprisingly many want to be on it. But really, what is the Board of Estimate and Taxation?

This has been a year for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to rehash its history and explain, often defensively, its independent existence. Its nine commissioners are fighting to keep their body alive, feeling under attack from a proposal from three City Council members who want to see the city’s charter changed — and the Park Board eliminated.

That story’s been told. It’s been the loudest one ever since the so-called Ostrow Amendments first came to light five months ago.

But there’s been much less noise over another proposed elimination: that of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

A prime example of this gap in interest occurred on April 23. It was the first night of a four-stop tour by the Charter Commission to take public comment on the proposals, a night of fiercely wagged fingers, frequent feedback from audio speakers and lots of clapping. Seventeen everyday citizens had come to fight for the Park Board, and they were often passionate. They talked about Minneapolis’ green space being the country’s greatest and how they played sports as children in their neighborhood parks and how their children have a place to go after school.

By comparison, only four citizens came to talk about the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Even fewer came to support its existence. And they offered no personal stories, no experiences of interaction.

None of this should come as a huge surprise. The board has never been one to get attention. At least one study suggests most Minneapolis residents don’t even know what it is — nor do they care.

Then again, there’s also this factoid: More people have entered their names for election to the board in this fall’s election than in any City Council race.

Why? What exactly is this board?

For starters, it has six members: the mayor, the City Council president, the chairman of the city’s Ways and Means Committee and a Park Board commissioner, as well as two publicly elected officials. Their tasks include managing the city’s debt, setting the maximum tax levy and auditing the city’s books. But they also are cited as the provider of extra transparency, an extra set of checks and balances to make sure no one group is making irresponsible taxing decisions in Minneapolis government.

“Clean government doesn’t just happen,” says Carol Becker, one of the two directly-elected officials currently on the board.

Becker is in some ways the quintessential Board of Estimate and Taxation member: She comes from a largely financial background, admits to having a stack of city budget books at her home, and uses the slogan “A Serious Geek for Serious Times” in her reelection campaign.

She also can talk about the board’s history. In a post to the Minneapolis Issues List, she explained that the board’s mandate is older than even the board itself. The original Board of Tax Levy was founded in 1879, meant to oversee tax interactions among governmental bodies that at the time also included Hennepin County. The city-only board was formed in 1919.

But a 130-year history doesn’t necessarily mean necessity, say the board’s naysayers. One of the main arguments from Council Member Paul Ostrow, the chief author of the charter amendments, is that if the Park Board were eliminated, the taxation board would be left without a use.

A 2006 study from the League of Women Voters calls the board “unusual.” Although it’s not the only one of its kind in the country, most larger municipalities don’t have one. St. Paul, for example, goes to the Legislature for its capital financing needs.

The study argues that there is no compelling reason to hang onto the board, that most of its tasks could be wrapped into city departments.

But proponents say there’s another key role the board plays: referee. The board forces the Park Board and the City Council, two parties with a contentious history, into the same room to discuss their collective finances. Without someone in the middle, Becker predicts, the two sides’ relationship would turn even grimmer than it already is.

“You’ll very quickly not have an independent Park Board,” she says.

Parks Commissioner Bob Fine agrees. He calls the board’s middleman task invaluable.

“Do you get rid of something just because the general public doesn’t know what it does?” Fine asks.

According to some, yes.

“Fewer than half of all voters in recent elections have known or cared enough to vote for the two elected members of this board,” the League’s study says. Therefore, they argue, it’s a fallacy to say the board offers more transparency. If people don’t know or understand the board, they won’t really know the candidates, their skills or their duties. It would better serve transparency if familiar governmental figures such as the mayor and/or City Council members had the board’s task, according to the study.

“Eliminating the board would seem to provide a more direct means of citizen input,” the League concludes.

Whether that’s true remains up for debate.

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, [email protected] or on Twitter at @sctraudes.