Investing in our neighborhood parks

Open up a map of Minneapolis, close your eyes and put your finger down on the map. When you open your eyes, chances are that your finger landed on a location that is walking distance to a Minneapolis Park. Minneapolis is renowned for its parks and has received recognition as the #1 park system in America from The Trust for Public Land. That is just one of many recognitions Minneapolis has received in the last year which can be attributed to our park system. We have also received recognition for our Grand Rounds, being green, best fall vacation destinations, best city to live in, great city for picnics, best for biking, best for festivals, healthiest city, Arbor Foundation Tree City Award and the list goes on and on. It would be impossible to argue that our parks are not vitally important to our high quality of life and our desirability as a destination location.

In the last year we have received another message regarding our parks and this one is alarming. From February through October, 2015 the MPRB held meetings to address “Closing the Gap: Investing in Neighborhood Parks.” In this case we are not talking about an educational gap — although equity is an element of the conversation – we are talking about the gap between funding and needed upkeep of our neighborhood parks and their programs. Mark Andrew, chair of Save Our Minneapolis Parks and former Hennepin County Board chair, and Carol Becker, Board of Estimate and Taxation, recently reported in an editorial in the StarTribune that the current backlog of deferred maintenance already exceeds $110 million. The MPRB’s “Closing the Gap” report estimates that the backlog will continue to increase if funding levels remain constant, growing an additional $46 million from 2016-2020.

MPRB initiated conversations throughout the City of Minneapolis to inform citizens of the current issues regarding maintenance, needed replacement of park assets and current service levels at the parks. The MPRB estimates they will need $14.3 million plus inflation each year to meet capital investment needs and currently has $4-5 million per year to invest in these assets, leaving an annual gap is $9.3 million plus inflation. There is also an operational gap of $3 million plus inflation per year. These expenses are related to general upkeep; mowing, building maintenance, tree pruning, and path repairs. The MPRB initiative also gathered information regarding how citizens prioritize the amenities of the parks and the programs the parks offer. The information was gathered using a number of communication tools, including phone survey, community meetings, online and paper survey, and stakeholder meetings.

According to the MPRB’s Closing the Gap report, participants across the spectrum of engagement “expressed a willingness to address the funding gap through an increase in property taxes” with 77 percent supporting or strongly supporting a property tax increase to “maintain service at present levels.” In their recent StarTribune editorial, Becker and Andrew reported that a survey completed by the Trust for Public Land “shows that over 70 percent of Minneapolis residents would support and pay for a 20-year program to refurbish and maintain our precious park investments.”

In January MPRB Superintendent Jayne Miller presented the Park Board Commissioners with a ballot referendum, as well as an implementation plan for the first five years of the referendum. In February the MPRB Board of Commissioners voted to put referendum language on the ballot and Mayor Betsy Hodges vetoed the proposal, offering instead a 10 year plan for fixing neighborhood parks and streets. In March the MPRB unanimously supported a resolution approving the 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan between the City and the MPRB. The compromise solution presented by City Council Members Barb Johnson and Lisa Goodman was also vetoed by Mayor Hodges. The compromise proposal would allocate a 1 percent tax increase that would raise $3 million annually, raising an extra $8 million annually from bonding that would be assured for 20 years. This plan was also vetoed by Mayor Betsy Hodges. At its April 6 meeting, the MPRB voted unanimously a second time to override Mayor Betsy Hodges’s veto. They stated they will continue to negotiate with the City on the 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan and will work concurrently with the Minneapolis Charter Commission to put a charter amendment on the ballot this fall.

So just what does this mean for North Minneapolis parks? The MPRB has established “equity-based criteria” for prioritizing projects to be funded by the 20 Year Neighborhood Parks Funding Plan. Community characteristics such as racially concentrated areas of poverty, areas with high youth population, population density and neighborhood safety will be given a higher point value. Racially concentrated areas of poverty are given the highest point value, and defined as “areas where more than 40 percent of the population has a family income below 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold and where more than 50 percent of the residents are people of color.” This was done to “make sure that future investments are targeted to areas that have historically been underserved by public investment.” Community characteristics will be combined with park characteristics to determine which projects will be addressed first. Park characteristics are based on the assets that are physically located within each park.

Specifically Folwell Park, Perkins Hill Park, Jordan Park and North Commons Park will receive prioritization under Closing the Gap considerations in addition to their currently scheduled capital improvements. Folwell Park will receive playground, site and additional improvements totaling $342,642 in 2017. Perkins Hill Park will receive playground, site and path improvements totaling $350,000 in 2018. Jordan Park will receive pool and playground improvements, and soil correction totaling $1,270,000 in 2018. North Commons Park will receive waterpark design phase improvements totaling $367,500 in 2019 and major waterpark improvements totaling $1,270,000 in 2020. Current capital improvements are also scheduled for Cleveland Park, playground and site improvements totaling $277,830 in 2018, and Fairview Park, playground and site improvements totaling $291,900 in 2019.

For info on Closing the Gap visit minneapolisparks.org/_asset/4yfwv3/Closing-the-Gap—Investing-in-Neighborhood-Parks—-Final-Report-10-21-15.pdf. For info on the 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan visitminneapolisparksmn.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=1587&MediaPosition=&ID=3042&CssClass.