Minneapolis Park Superintendent Jayne Miller wants to ask city taxpayers for at least $210 million over the next 15 to 20 years, money that would be used for improving some of the most worn-out and outdated park amenities.

Park commissioners said Wednesday they want to make a request to voters next year for $14 million annually in new money, but they directed Miller to craft a detailed list of projects that would happen in the first five years if the measure passed.

It is the park system’s largest request for tax money in at least a generation, serving as a high-stakes test of voters’ commitment to city parks and recreation areas.

Scott Vreeland, the Park Board’s vice president, said that without more money, the city’s parks could go the way of St. Paul’s cash-strapped park system, which has downsized the number of recreation centers.

“I think we really need to talk about, ‘Do you have less parks, do you want to have less wading pools?’ ” he said.

For months, park officials have been exploring the idea in neighborhood meetings and with their counterparts in other big cities. But park officials can’t make the decision on a public vote on their own.

The next step would be to take a referendum proposal to City Hall, where it is likely to draw some sharp pushback from officials who have tried to keep property taxes in check.

“I think it’s going to be greeted with some skepticism because I think there is a majority of people on the council who are going to be concerned about the burden on the taxpayer,” Council President Barbara Johnson said. Voters in Johnson’s North Side ward historically have been among the least likely to support new spending measures.

Several avenues available

There are several ways park advocates could bring the issue to voters.

The City Council could put a proposal on the ballot, the Charter Commission could get involved or park boosters could attempt a petition drive.

A $14 million levy increase for neighborhood parks would add $69 annually for the owner of a $191,000 home — the median value this year.

Park Board President Liz Wielinski has been talking with council members and staff in the mayor’s office. She said she’d prefer to work with the council to put the issue before voters to avoid the appearance of park officials working around city officials. The board’s lawyer, Brian Rice estimated that park advocates would need to collect 15,000 signatures in order to have the almost 7,000 valid signatures of registered voters needed to get the measure on the ballot.

The board is leaning toward a referendum to authorize higher taxes rather than one that would allow long-term borrowing through the sale of taxpayer-backed bonds. One reason Miller favors this approach is that bonding money can only be used for new buildings and amenities. She envisions the money being used for a broad variety of park fix-ups, everything from mowing more often to replacing worn-out buildings. Going for tax money rather than selling bonds also would eliminate the interest charged for borrowed money.

Preparing a project list

Miller has portrayed the park system as in decay, with buildings at the end of their life cycle or in need of major upgrades. The Park Board held a series of meetings through the summer, looking at a sampling of the city’s 157 neighborhood parks and the needs for facilities such as pools, playing fields and buildings.

One factor that will play into a referendum is the desire of school officials to renew their excess operating levy, which would put that issue before voters at the same time as the park request. There’s been talk about coordinating the school and park campaigns, but as of last week those discussions hadn’t happened.

Miller said she’s begun working on a proposed projects list, something that could be used to entice reluctant or skeptical voters.

“People in the community are going to want to know what this is for,” Commissioner John Erwin said. “I want to go to the community and I trust the community to make a good decision.


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