Park supt. proposes $300M referendum for November

Commissioners could move it forward later this month.

Bryant Square Park is one of several neighborhood parks with expired facilities due to budget shortfalls. Credit: Photo by Ellen Schmidt

Minneapolis park Superintendent Jayne Miller presented a plan Wednesday for a November referendum that would generate roughly $300 million for the city’s 157 neighborhood parks over the next two decades.

The proposal, which hasn’t been approved by park commissioners yet, would generate about $15 million per year in order to address a growing $140 million gap in backlogged funding necessary to maintain the system. Miller recommended the referendum begin with 2018 taxes in order to ready the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for the additional park spending.

Miller estimates the additional funds, which would be tied to the city’s taxable property base, would cost taxpayers with a $190,000 home about $65 a year, those with $300,000 homes about $111 a year and those with $450,000 homes about $173 annually.

Commissioners, many of which have voiced approval for a referendum, are expected to vote on the superintendent’s proposal on Jan. 20.

The Park Board cannot put the proposal before voters by itself. If approved, Miller said the board would reach out by Feb. 1 to the City Council and the city’s Charter Commission, which are able to move it onto the November ballot. The board could also get on the ballot through the state legislature or through a citizen petition, which Miller said she is also considering.

Miller plans to come back before the board in April with details on where the estimated $77 million generated in the referendum’s first five years will go. She presented a preliminary framework that split the extra funds into maintenance, investment and rehabilitation.

She plans to spend more than $20 million on maintenance between 2018-2022, which would push up park care across the system’s facilities. For example, instead of replacing site amenities every 20 years, the board could do it every 10 years. Instead of mowing every two weeks, staff could mow every 10 days. Staff would maintain and repair four times as much sidewalk — a quarter mile to a full mile — each year.

Miller proposed to use $14 million to rehabilitate park assets in the first five years, which would go to lighting upgrades, security improvements and addressing a large backlog of recreation center and other projects.

The board would also invest just over $43 million under the referendum’s first five years, putting money into realizing its approved master plans across the city; creating new parks; and improving facilities in under-served areas.

The proposal is the culmination of a more than yearlong effort to educate the public on the needs of the city’s neighborhood parks, which are facing a $111 million funding gap. By 2020, the board estimates that would grow by $46 million if funding levels remain consistent.

Park leaders say the gaps have accumulated over the past few decades as park facilities, many built in the 1970s, decline. Each year, Miller says these neighborhood parks need more than $14 million to maintain assets like playgrounds and recreation centers, despite receiving about $5 million annually. At the same time, the city has the top-rated system in the nation.

Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, will chair a citizen effort to rally around the referendum and voiced his support for the additional funding at the board’s meeting.

“I believe we’re on the precipice of an irreversible decline of our city parks,” he said, adding that the decline wasn’t the fault of the board. “I believe it’s beyond important.”

Andrew promised robust public backing for the referendum. Miller said the group could lead the charge of a citizen petition if other avenues to get on the ballot are exhausted.

“The public values our parks more than any other city asset,” he said. “It’s show time. It’s decision time.”

Commissioner Brad Bourn, the referendum’s most vocal critic during the meeting, said he wouldn’t get in the way of a referendum effort, but questioned its longevity with future boards.

“Every meeting we’re at, I feel like you’re bringing forward an issue to us that we’re correcting a 20-year-old mistake of a previous board. I guess I don’t want to do that to my successors if there’s a better path,” he said. “My biggest concern is that it’s not sustainable.”

Commissioners Annie Young, Scott Vreeland, Steffanie Musich, Meg Forney, Jon Olson and President Liz Wielinski all voiced some preliminary support for the referendum. Commissioners John Erwin and Anita Tabb were absent.

“I think the superintendent is taking us down the right road,” Young said.

Wielinski, who has represented the board in meetings with other city groups regarding the topic, said a referendum is the most politically feasible option.

“This is the most likely scenario to help save our park system into the future, and that’s what I was elected to do,” Wielinski said.

Vreeland challenged Minneapolis residents to maintain the award-winning system or risk losing the city’s top spot.

“It’s really up to the city and its voters to decide ‘OK, we don’t want to be the No. 1 park system, we want to be No. 10…’ or is this really essential to what makes the city?” he said. “For me, the solution is the referendum.”



Supertintendent Jayne Miller’s presentation, including proposed ballot language, is available online. Her 2018-2022 spending framework under the referendum is available here