A Metropolitan Council plan that would guide the development of parks in the metro area over the next 30 years has irritated Dakota County officials, who say it would undermine the control of local leaders who know residents' needs best.

In a letter to Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh last week, county commissioners criticized several of the plan's proposals and said their input was disregarded during its creation.

Met Council staff said they want to partner with agencies that run the parks and are trying to offer them a different perspective.

"We want to bring a regional lens to the conversation. There are opportunities to partner with other park partners, like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources," said Jan Youngquist, a planning analyst who worked on the parks plan. "It's not the two sides. It's a richer conversation on how we can improve the regional parks."

Some Dakota County officials saw it differently.

"They are trying to top-down dictate how we operate our parks," Dakota commissioner Tom Egan said.

Commissioners bristled at the suggestion that the Met Council should help decide which park improvement projects to pursue. In the past, agencies that run the parks, like counties and cities, would prioritize their needs and the Met Council would pass that along to the state.

Local agencies "own, manage and improve the regional parks system, have their own elected governance boards, are the experts in the field, and are best suited to determine how funding results in the highest public return," the county's letter said. "It is important that the Metropolitan Council does not usurp the authority of local elected officials in the improvement of regional park systems."

Rising impatience

County leaders' frustrations with the Met Council have been mounting — along with their expenses for operating parks.

The Met Council is supposed to distribute enough funding to the local governments and agencies that manage parks to cover at least 40 percent of the expenses associated with park operations and maintenance, according to state statute. But the agencies running the parks have never received, on average, more than 9.47 percent since the statute was implemented, county officials said.

The county is also eligible for $18 million from the state and Metropolitan Council in reimbursements for projects, like the development of Whitetail Woods, its newest park.

"They are so far behind in what they owe us, it's a big fat IOU," Egan said.

Reimbursements and funding obligations should take priority over new programs, officials said.

The state had surplus funds last year and spent it on projects like renovating the Minnesota Children's Museum and redesigning Nicollet Mall. Meanwhile, parks funding declined by two-thirds, County Manager Brandt Richardson said. Local taxpayers end up saddled with the majority of the cost of regional parks, he said.

A prime goal of the Met Council plan is to promote equal access to parks. It aims to address impoverished neighborhoods of color and ensure people in those communities have recreation opportunities. But Dakota commissioners said it overlooks concentrations of poverty outside the urban core.

The word "equity" in the same sentence as "Met Council" is met with a shake of the head or eye roll from some county officials.

The council suggests creating a "park equity" grant program that could be used for capital projects. County officials questioned how that program would address the biggest barriers to park use, such as lack of awareness and time, safety concerns and language barriers.

In focus group meetings with community members across the metro area, Met Council staff found the needs of certain ethic or racial groups were not being met in parks, Youngquist said.

Some want certain games, or prefer to have get-togethers with large groups — and one picnic table and grill are insufficient. The grant program could help meet those needs.

"By 2040, 40 percent of the region's population is going to be communities of color," Youngquist said.

The council is trying to anticipate the needs of a changing population through various long-term plans.

The parks document is one of four long-range policy plans that the Met Council is working on, along with housing, transportation and water resources plans. Several of the new strategies have drawn the ire of county officials, who say they focus on the urban core and burden the suburbs and rural communities.

Community members submitted 880 comments on the transportation plan alone, causing the Met Council to push its adoption of the plan from December to January, in order to have time to respond.

The comment period for the parks plan is open through Oct. 30. The plan is then revised and is expected to come before the council for adoption in January.

Dakota County officials were not optimistic that their comments on the parks plan would produce change, but Richardson said, "I think it's our responsibility to point out what we see as flaws in this."

County commissioners lamented that they did not have more say earlier in the process. There were only "a handful of meetings" between Met Council staff and local government officials to discuss the plan, the letter states and suburban parks staff's suggestions were not added.

There has been — and still is — ample opportunity for community members to weigh in, Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said, and even after the plan is adopted it will be routinely reviewed and can be amended.