The Minneapolis park superintendent stands alone among municipal officials in the Twin Cities area in having a tax-supported place to live.
It’s not free. Former Superintendent Jayne Miller paid $1,154 monthly to live in the hulking Dutch colonial house that overlooks the Lyndale Farmstead Park sledding hill. That once may have been a fair rent, but it hasn’t risen in more than six years.
The Park Board’s version of rent control for its superintendent persisted even after promises in late 2016 to re-examine the house’s rent after this reporter highlighted the situation.
Then-President Anita Tabb said she’d seek a review of the superintendent’s rent once the board adopted its annual budget in late 2016. Tabb didn’t return this reporter’s calls about the matter a few days before her term expired in December. But a board spokeswoman said such a review didn’t start until late last year, almost a year later, and still isn’t complete.
The Park Board’s laxness comes despite one Southwest area rental-market specialist’s estimate that rents have gone up at least 15–20 percent since the superintendent’s rent was last set in 2011. Plenty of other tenants in Minneapolis no doubt wish they could go that long without a rent increase.
This isn’t a matter of whether you loved or loathed Miller, a career public servant. She accomplished a number of steps to lift the park system out of its old boys’ network and played a key role in assuring better funding for neighborhood park improvements. She also could be a demanding boss, engendered some union opposition, and ultimately foundered on the perception — fair or not — that the park system wasn’t serving minority residents equitably. Seeing the handwriting on the wall with a newly elected insurgent board, she left her $171,253 per year job without waiting out the mid-2018 expiration of her contract, as this writer forecast in a column last summer.
Not hiking the rent has implications for Miller or any future superintendent, and for the board. One is that charging her a below-market rent amounts to additional compensation. The added compensation would have pushed Miller over the state salary cap on local officials in 2016, when she was already at the maximum allowed.
There are also tax implications. The IRS regards any difference between the fair market rent for a provided residence and what the employee is actually paying as taxable compensation. Not keeping the rent up to date could mean a back tax bill for the superintendent. The board spokeswoman said that no taxable compensation for below-market rent has been reported for Miller because the market study isn’t completed.
It’s possible that Miller may wind up being the last superintendent to occupy the mansion. It was built for second superintendent Theodore Wirth as an incentive to lure the famed park planner to Minneapolis early in the 20th century. During his long tenure here, he built many features of our modern park system, supervising engineers and draftsmen who worked out of a basement-level office of the house.
Seven of the park system’s 13 superintendents have occupied the house. Some who got the job already lived in the city and didn’t need the house. Those who lived there paid no rent until the 1990s; superintendents contractually required to live there are exempted by the IRS from having to report subsidized rent as compensation.
Miller was required by her contract to live in the city but not the house. She opted to occupy it to better familiarize herself with the city. But she may be the last superintendent to do so.
Brad Bourn, the board president from Southwest Minneapolis, said recently that he doesn’t envision the next superintendent living in the house. But he said if the person offered a contract wants to live there, the matter of fair rent should be revisited.
As an aside, he noted that he was paying more to rent a basement apartment in Uptown than Miller paid in rent for the house. That’s all the more reason the board needs to determine the true market value for a future tenant, whether that’s a superintendent or some other tenant.