Many suburban parks are showing their age.
Instead of trying to stop the sagging with incremental nips and tucks, some cities may ask voters to pay for a full-scale facelift.
Coon Rapids is contemplating putting a multimillion-dollar ballot question to voters this fall. The city has hired an outside firm to survey residents to gauge their appetite for park renovations and the corresponding tax hike. The bond referendum amount could range from $16 million to $23 million.
To the south, South St. Paul is also surveying residents about a possible parks ballot measure.
Why take it to the voters instead of squeezing it into the city budget? In part, it’s because parks improvements aren’t viewed as an absolute need, says a financial adviser.
“If your fire station is in disrepair, it’s not really a choice,” said Mark Ruff with Ehlers, which specializes in public finance. “Parks improvements are seen as better left to the voters.”
Low interest rates — around 2.5 percent — make it a good time for cities to borrow, Ruff said.
Not a sure thing
But ballot measures take time and money. And in the end, voters can say no. They did in Cottage Grove last year, for example.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” Ruff said.
Coon Rapids will spend $13,500 on a telephone survey and then an estimated $25,000 more in elections expenses if the City Council chooses to go ahead with the referendum. Referendum dollars would pay for a variety of park and trail improvements across the city. The city’s marquee green space, 73-acre Sand Creek Park, would be redesigned and reconstructed.
Council members and city staff agree that the costs of the survey and potentially a ballot measure would be dollars well spent.
“It’s a communitywide improvement. It had a significant price tag. For an improvement of this magnitude, they really wanted the public’s input,” said Coon Rapids Assistant City Manager Matt Stemwedel. “The council could, in theory, just raise taxes. But if we are going to make this project work, we need to make a long-term commitment.”
Waiting to see
Two Coon Rapids City Council members said they personally support a parks referendum but will wait to see what the survey yields before making any formal decisions.
“I am all for it. Long story short is, with budget cutbacks for so many years, no one has had the money to put into the parks,” said Council Member Steve Wells.
Wells said getting permission is the best way to proceed with a project of this size.
“It’s hard to seek that much money without public approval,” he said. “Clearly there is a lot of antitax sentiment. We want people to have ownerships of this.”
Council Member Ron Manning said he and his family frequently use the trails to bike and walk.
“Coon Rapids really does have a lot of parks that have been around for decades. At some point in time you have to do something before they deteriorate and people don’t want to go to them anymore. It’s a quality-of-life thing,” Manning said.
He likes the idea of improving parks and trail connections, but said he’ll put his personal opinion aside if survey results show residents don’t share his sentiment.
“It really is up to the citizens of Coon Rapids. It should be their choice when you get something this big,” he said.
If the referendum idea is scrapped or if the question does make the ballot and voters reject it, the city will continue on its current course, Manning said. It will pay for some parks repairs and improvements each year.
That’s the strategy in Cottage Grove after voters shot down a parks ballot measure in 2012. Voters also rejected a second measure to build a new community swimming pool.
“We heard no, so we are going to move on to other things,” said City Administrator Ryan Schroeder. “That doesn’t mean we won’t do parks improvements.”
It will just be at a more incremental pace, Schroeder said.