Park Board: Give us complete independence

Without action, park commissioners say the possible end to the Board of Estimate and Taxation could spell their own demise

The claws are out at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

After several months of watching proposals to amend the city’s charter flow in and out of City Hall — including one that would have taken away their independent status and essentially turned them into an advisory committee to City Council members — the Park Board has decided to escalate the fight: Now, they want their own change in the city’s rules.

On July 1, the board’s commissioners unanimously decided to fight for 100 percent independence. That’s believed to be a first for the 126-year-old parks system.

Although they are commonly referred to as an independent board, the Park Board is financially not in complete control. Their money technically flows through the city, and their annual property tax levy is set by the Board of Estimate and Taxation, of which half the members are city representatives but just one represents the parks.

The Park Board’s proposed change would make them their own governmental unit, meaning they would no longer have to work through the taxation board and instead head to the state. That’s already how most municipalities in Minnesota work, including cities such as St. Paul and the Three Rivers Park District.

Biggest of all, if the City Council ever gains control of the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s powers, the parks’ finances wouldn’t rest on the city’s decisions.

“We have no choice given what’s happened,” Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson said.

Estimate and Taxation

Just hours before the Park Board’s motion, the city’s Charter Commission ensured that voters this fall will decide whether the taxation board should give its powers to the City Council.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation is currently made up of six members — the mayor, two City Council members, one Park Board commissioner and two separately elected people. The amendment, developed by Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), would replace those six members with the City Council.

The Charter Commission in June approved putting the amendment on the ballot, a decision the Park Board tried to get them to go back on this month.

The Park Board argues that by putting the taxation board’s powers in the council’s hands, the Park Board would lose a big part of their independence. No longer would they have a seat at the tax levy-setting table, and commissioners fear that the city could starve the parks’ finances to a point that they would be left with no choice but to be folded into the city.

Those arguments didn’t impress the Charter Commission. Yes, several charter commissioners said, the Park Board and the City Council would need a higher level of communication. But the current system is outdated, they said. Change is necessary.

Perhaps anticipating that outcome, members of the Park Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation also brought forward two more amendment proposals. The first would have required the parks and the city’s annual tax levy increases to be identical; the second would have added a second parks representative to the taxation board to fill what used to be a Minneapolis Library Board seat.

Both failed.

15,000 signatures

For their full-independence amendment initiative, the Park Board isn’t going the Charter Commission route. Instead, they’re going to try to petition it onto the Nov. 3 ballot. They need about 10,000 signatures and are aiming for 15,000. The deadline is Aug. 11.

Several commissioners said they would commit to hours of volunteer time.

“A lot of people don’t like politics,” Commissioner Walt Dziedzic said. “But if this board doesn’t get political —

“We’re talking about fighting something that’s trying to kill us,” he said.

What exactly the Park Board’s efforts will do to the long-strenuous relationship between them and the city is not yet known, although early signs point to further fissures. Mayor R.T. Rybak, who supports the proposal to eliminate the taxation board, quickly vetoed the Park Board’s ordinance to seek independence, saying he has concerns that the parks’ commissioners would set irresponsibly high tax levels.

“It would be a mistake to assume that because people love parks, they don’t also expect us to be good stewards of their taxes,” Rybak said in a letter to the board. “The ensuring public debate will reflect this, if this ill-advised charter amendment ends up on the ballot in November.”

The Park Board unanimously overturned the veto.

A poll of some City Council members showed mixed feelings.

Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) kicked off the save-or-eliminate debate earlier this year with a proposed charter amendment that essentially would have made the Park Board an advisory board to the council. That amendment, Ostrow said, was meant to create a more efficient city government — something that, if anything, the Park Board’s proposal would take a step back with, he said.

Council Member Scott Benson (11th Ward), meanwhile, was one of three council members who had opposed Ostrow’s amendment with the understanding that there would be serious discussions over the next year to improve the two sides’ relationship. Benson said he hopes that will still happen, although he said it could be less likely now. The Park Board’s actions, he said, seem to be an overreaction.

“It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.