Coon Rapids voters will decide this fall whether to invest $17.2 million in a large-scale parks and trail system renovation.
The City Council voted to put a parks referendum question on the November ballot after a survey showed residents generally support it. If the question passes, the city would renovate and build trails, playgrounds, playing fields, basketball courts and picnic shelters. It would also redesign parks to improve layout and optimize usage.
“Money has dried up in the city to maintain our parks. I think people are incredibly proud of the parks in this city. This is going to enable us to do the things we’d like to do,” said Council Member Steve Wells. “It’s not going to be free, but nothing is. I think it will be worthwhile and a great investment in our city.”
City parks and trails are showing their age and the primary funding source for the city’s green space — parks dedication fees paid by developers — isn’t there anymore, officials said.
“The city was able to fund new parks with parks dedication fees. We haven’t had those fees in a while. We are a pretty developed community,” said the city’s finance director, Sharon Legg.
The city has more than 40 parks, totaling about 900 acres, and more than 20 miles of trails.
The council decided to ask residents for approval for the systemwide renovation as opposed to acting on its own and shoehorning the cost of parks and trails renovations into the city’s current budget over a series of years.
If approved, the 20-year levy would raise city property taxes from approximately $617 to $657 on a home valued at $150,000. That’s about $40 a year.
The last few years, the city has focused on funding essential services, including street repairs and fire and police services. The city increased its levy by 4 percent in 2012 and 4 percent in 2013. It’s now at $22 million.
Legg said there are pressures to keep the levy down. “People were struggling these last few years. We were trying to play our part and not increase taxes. We have to maintain and run the city. There’s just not that much left over to do improvements.”
The city has spent $300,000 to $400,000 on parks improvements each year, but that doesn’t go very far, Legg said.
“We are keeping them up the best we can given the current financing,” said Assistant City Manager Matt Stemwedel. “Many of the parks are coming up to an age where they need some capital investment to keep them a great benefit to the city.”
If the issue passes, the city’s marquee green space, Sand Creek Park, and its five larger, cornerstone parks will be renovated. Several neighborhood parks and trails also would be improved over a 10-year period.
The city is still working out the finer points of the renovation plan.
The City Council removed plans to develop a dog park with money from the referendum after residents surveyed strongly opposed it. The city is currently partnering with Anoka County and the city of Andover to develop a dog park at Bunker Hills Regional Park, managed by the county. That is slated to open late this summer.
Selling it to voters
Now, the City Council and the parks and recreation commission will need to sell the referendum to voters. Technically, the city can only fund informational material about the referendum, but individuals on the council and commission can advocate for it.
The recent resident survey showed support for a parks levy, but it’s no slam dunk. Originally, the city was toying with a $21.5 million figure.
About 60 percent of the 400 households surveyed said they supported some aspects of the referendum, 12 percent said they supported all aspects and 26 percent said they opposed it.
In light of those results, the city settled on the $17.2 million figure, which could be reduced a bit more before it ends up on the ballot.
At a recent meeting, council and commission members strategized about how to generate grass-roots support for the referendum. They talked about seeking support from youth soccer and baseball leagues, local bike shops and other frequent parks users. Trails proved to be one of the most popular parks amenities in the recent survey and they discussed how to tap into those users, including empty-nesters.
“I don’t think its opposition as much as apathy working against us,” said Council Member Wells during the strategy session.