Metro, outstate parks squabble over Legacy cash

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2012 - 2:34 AM

At root is disagreement over who's using parks and trails.

A bitter battle is brewing between park agencies in the Twin Cities and in outstate Minnesota over how much each should get from the nearly $40 million state Parks and Trails Legacy Fund.

More than 60 percent of the sales tax money comes from the seven-county metro area, but only about 40 percent is being used for parks and trails there. The rest goes to the state Department of Natural Resources and to regionally important parks and trails outstate.

"This wasn't a fund just created for outstate parks, for gosh sakes," said Carver Commissioner Tom Workman, who used to serve in the Legislature. "We've got to take a stand here."

Carver County and nine other county and local governments with metro regional parks want a bigger piece of the pie. So far, three metro cities and three county boards have passed identical resolutions, including Carver County and Bloomington's City Council last week.

The resolution said that the metro system needs "a more equitable distribution" of the money because the metro area contributes 64 percent of the sales tax and its regional parks have four times more visitors than parks in greater Minnesota. The resolution said the decision about where the money goes needs to acknowledge populations, where the funds are being collected and where Minnesotans are spending their recreational time.

Minneapolis and St. Paul park boards, and Anoka and Ramsey counties also have signed on.

The fund raises about $39 million annually through an add-on to the sales tax approved by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2008.

Outstate: We're the underdogs

However, the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Coalition said the metro area has it backward.

It's the rest of Minnesota that deserves additional funding, said Barry Wendorf, communications director for the group. If anything, he said, greater Minnesota admires the success of the large metro parks and wants to build trails and parks to connect with them.

"We work together as colleagues with metro parks, but we feel we're underserved and underfunded," he said.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, chair of the House Legacy Funding Division, said the debate between the metro and non-metro park advocates has not been pleasant. "This was by far the most contentious issue facing the committee last year," he said. "There was no way to satisfy everybody."

The debate was so bitter that the Legacy bill died on the House floor at the end of last year's regular session, and funding for the current biennium was approved during the special session last July.

Of the $78 million raised for the Parks and Trails Legacy Fund for the current biennium, 42 percent went to metro regional parks, 38 percent to the DNR and 20 percent to non-DNR parks and trails in greater Minnesota. The previous biennium shares were 43 percent to metro parks, 43 to the DNR, and 14 to greater Minnesota venues.

The constitutional amendment also raises money for three other funds: the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Clean Water Fund, and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Urdahl was not sympathetic to charges that the metro area got shortchanged in how his committee allocated the Parks and Trails dollars.

"People in greater Minnesota would argue that maybe they don't have as many people, but a lot of the people who use their parks come from the metropolitan area," he said. That's especially true for state parks, Urdahl said, where nearly half of the visitors come from the Twin Cities.

Trails more popular

Boe Carlson, associate superintendent for the Three Rivers Park District, said that far more people are using metro regional parks.

"We've grown 46 percent in the last five years in our park and trail visitations," he said.

Three Rivers needs to double its 100 miles of regional trails, Carlson said, rehab nature centers that in some cases are 40 to 50 years old, and provide spaces for popular activities such as mountain biking and disc golf.

The district's commissioners expressed support for the resolution during a discussion last week, and are expected to approve it next month.

Parks and trails money may only be spent to support parks and trails of regional or statewide significance, and to supplement rather than replace traditional funding.

Carlson said that greater Minnesota already benefits greatly from the outdoor heritage money for fish and wildlife habitat, so the much smaller Parks and Trails Fund should be used for more metro projects.

Dan Larson, a lobbyist for the Greater Minnesota Coalition, disagrees. Stearns County, Bemidji, Rochester, Duluth and other communities have strong park systems of regional importance that are just as deserving, he said. Those parks and trails receive 20 percent of the fund, he said, less than half of what the seven-county metro systems receive.

The coalition received $7.1 million for 2012, he said, and it has an inventory of projects that would cost more than $30 million.

"The metro isn't the only area of the state with needs," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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