Coon Rapids considers referendum on park renovations

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2013 - 4:09 PM

With a hefty price tag for improvements, the city is seeking citizen approval via referendum rather than squeezing it into the budget.

Steve Wells; Coon Rapids City Council member; 2012.myVote id: 50223 ORG XMIT: MIN2013031510203414

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.”

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