Proposed 2021 park levy highlights COVID hardships

Encampment in Lyndale Farmstead Park
Encampment in Lyndale Farmstead Park. COVID-19 and addressing encampments of unsheltered people in parks has brought on additional costs for the park department.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has begun its formal 2021 budget process by approving a maximum levy that sets the stage for a reduction in services due to the financial hardships imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioners voted Sept. 2 to set a maximum levy of $70.3 million, a 1.18% increase from 2019. The additional $820,000 in the increase will go toward the MPRB’s new responsibility to manage The Commons park in Downtown, which fell under its control following a lengthy legal battle that concluded last year.

MPRB officials project an across-the-board cut in services in 2021 to make up for lost income and added expenses. Revenues from sources like event rentals and recreational sports have declined due to COVID-19 and addressing encampments of unsheltered people in parks has brought on additional costs.

“We are going to have a reduction budget,” financial director Juli Wiseman told commissioners.

The budget will require about $6.2 million in general fund reductions.

“We anticipate reductions in services across all departments in 2021 while upholding our mission to provide beautiful places and dynamic programs for all people to enjoy, particularly our youth,” Superintendent Al Bangoura said.

2021 will also mark the end of an additional MPRB $1.4 million annual levy used to beef up the city’s tree canopy following emerald ash borer infestation and damage from a tornado in 2011.

The 1.18% increase would represent part of the revenue from the overall maximum 5.75% property tax levy increase proposed by Mayor Jacob Frey to the Board of Estimate and Taxation. The MPRB receives about 7% of city property tax dollars, which funds about 75% of the Park Board’s budget.

Mayor Frey has not requested an adjustment to the 20-year neighborhood parks and streets improvement plan, Wiseman said.

Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) said he was hesitant to support the levy because he believes the mayor is using the Park Board to offset the average of his proposed 8.4% increase to the city’s general fund and make the overall levy increase look smaller than it really is. He said the board should look at other options, like a reduction in the neighborhood parks improvement plan, before approving a levy that will require cuts.

“It’s hard to look at this as anything more than a layoff budget,” Bourn said.

Park Board President Jono Cowgill said it was loud and clear that commissioners wanted a minimal levy increase during a difficult financial time for many residents and dismissed criticism that the MPRB is being forced to shoulder a disproportionately large cut.

“I don’t think it’s at all unfair,” Cowgill said.

The resolution to approve the levy increase passed 5-0, with Commissioners Bourn, Londel French (At Large), AK Hassan (District 3) and Kale Severson (District 2) abstaining.

Bangoura will present a recommended budget to commissioners on Oct. 21, and the board will have until Dec. 9 to approve a final budget and tax levy.