Parks budget debate centers on forestry, youth programming

A MPRB arborist helps a child plant a tree at an Arbor Day celebration. Three forestry department positions have been debated in the 2020 budget process. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

As the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board nears the deadline for passing its 2020 budget, commissioners are debating how to spend available funds between additional programming for city youth and retaining forestry positions seen vital to protecting trees.

After MPRB appeals to the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation for an additional $1.6 million were denied in September, Superintendent Al Bangoura presented commissioners with a $126 million 2020 budget focused on funding youth programming by adding employment opportunities and two “ideation centers” for young people to get access to technology at park facilities.

Park Board President Brad Bourn, who represents much of Southwest, proposed 48 budget amendments during a Dec. 4 finance committee discussion, including conditional, one-time funding of two forestry coordinator positions. The amendments also shuffled money around to put nearly $100,000 into a memorial “innovation fund” that would support programming for Somali youth in Phillips and Cedar-Riverside. An additional $91,000 for a third ideation center was also included in the amendments.

The list of amendments passed the MPRB finance committee 4-1. The full Park Board will consider those amendments at their Dec. 11 6 p.m. public hearing at City Hall, where they are expected to approve a final 2020 budget.

In November, Bourn proposed eliminating two currently vacant but funded coordinator positions in the forestry department. Those jobs include a tree preservation coordinator position the City of Minneapolis had previously committed to paying half the salary for, but has not done so, according to the MPRB. His Dec. 4 amendment to fund that role is contingent on the city paying nearly $200,000 to cover its portion of the position for four years.

That proposal brought on significant push back from residents concerned about the urban forest in budget talks and sparked debate on the board on whether to put remaining dollars into youth or forestry services.

“I’m hearing over and over again that our priority is investing in youth, but we have four strategic directions and that is only one,” said Commissioner Meg Forney.

She and other commissioners lobbied for permanent funding for the forestry positions and questioned the motives for funding for Somali youth programming.

“A lot of these amendments read like pork to me, read like political favoritism,” said Commissioner Steffanie Musich.

Vice President AK Hassan, who represents the Phillips and Cedar-Riverside area, said the Somali community has been underserved by the MPRB and denounced claims that program funding for them showed favoritism.

Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw, who voted against the amendments, said she wants to support trees and kids but was not in favor of programming for one group of youth. She said she hears much more desire for youth environmental programming than technology labs.

“I’d rather see climate initiatives before we see ideation labs,” she said.

Bourn believes the MPRB has been put in a “scenario of false scarcity” for the 2020 budget and said he would be pushing to make the forestry coordinator positions permanently funded next year.

The remainder of the amendments largely denied proposed fee increases for youth recreation, while seeking to increase revenues from adult recreation, wedding fees, and adding more metered parking at destinations like West River Parkway. His amendment list included a directive to create a plan in 2020 to replace the pavilion at Bde Maka Ska, which burned down in May.

“There are some hard and difficult challenges in this budget,” Bourn said.