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Park costs are crossing county lines

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2011 - 9:55 AM

Two large regional parks in central Scott County operate at a yearly deficit that has added up to $850,000 over the past 10 years, and suburban Hennepin County taxpayers could pick up the tab for that shortfall and subsidies in the future.

The parks are owned and operated by the Three Rivers Park District, suburban Hennepin County's large regional park system. The Three Rivers board is set to vote Dec. 15 whether to cover the deficit, raising questions from at least one member about whether Hennepin County residents should foot the bill for parks across the river in what is by one measure the state's richest county.

"Why should Hennepin County taxpayers pay for Scott park lands when we had a contract [with Scott County] that would cover it?" said park board member Joan Peters of Golden Valley.

But Board Chairman Larry Blackstad said Scott County in recent years has paid more than $500,000 a year for park operations, and though that does not cover all costs, the park district "has never gotten a penny" from other counties where it operates parks outside Hennepin's borders. Most notably, it operates one park apiece in Carver and Ramsey counties.

The Scott County parks in question are Cleary Lake Regional Park and Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve. They are used primarily by Scott County residents (51 percent) and secondarily by Dakota County residents (26 percent), with 9 percent of the visitors coming from suburban Hennepin and 14 percent from other places.

Subsidies to Scott County won't end when the current deficit is erased. Under a new agreement with Scott County, Three Rivers will fund the two parks to the tune of $128,846 a year. Scott County will be counted on to pay about $602,000 annually. All greens fees and concessions revenues collected at the parks also will be applied to operating costs.

The parks were purchased in the 1970s by Three Rivers, then called Hennepin Parks, at the behest of Scott County, which at the time was rural and sparsely populated with less capacity than it has today to buy park lands for the future.

Now Scott has the highest median household income of all counties in the state, at $82,000, compared with the $61,000 recorded for Hennepin County, according to the latest U.S. Census survey. But the politically conservative Scott makes it a priority to hold its property taxes down and has teamed up with Three Rivers to stretch the county's parks spending.

Three Rivers, which has a 2012 budget of $34.5 million, is the only metro-area park district that operates across county boundaries. Its stated mission is to "acquire, develop and maintain large park reserves and regional parks and trails for the citizens of suburban Hennepin County, the metro area and the state."

Because it subsidizes parks outside of Hennepin and operates large, popular parks and trails in Hennepin, Three Rivers receives regional parks grants that help pay for its larger role. But it has taxing authority in suburban Hennepin alone.

Finances tightening

Cross-county costs are of new interest because finances are growing tighter at the Park District. After years of annually increasing its spending as the suburban Hennepin tax base grew, Three Rivers now is near the top of its levy limit and watching its tax base shrink as property values fall.

The district has taken many cost-cutting measures and is trying to divest itself of the Coon Rapids Dam to free its taxpayers from the ongoing burden of maintaining a 100-year-old dam that is not central to park services.

Deficits at the two parks in Scott County date back to the early 2000s, when the annual cost of operations started to exceed revenues, said Howard Koolick, the Park District's chief financial officer.

"It was hoped that possible improvements to the golf course [at Cleary] and growth in Scott County's annual contribution would lead to increased revenues. Unfortunately, the improvements did not occur and Scott County was not able to increase its contribution," Koolick said.

Scott County payments have risen but not as fast as expenditures. Payments started at slightly more than $300,000 in 2000; rose to about $400,000 in 2003, and ranged above $500,000 between 2004 and 2010.

The deficit was not publicly discussed last year when Three Rivers and Scott County entered into a new "efficiency in government" partnership aimed at adding more park services in Scott County with money both sides hope to save by eliminating duplications in park staff and services.

Now Three Rivers wants to use its reserves to wipe away the old deficit and start fresh under the new partnership.

Starting with a set Scott County payment of $602,000 this year, and a set subsidy of $128,846 from Three Rivers, the new partnership is designed to get a more precise handle on the cost of those parks and eliminate deficits in the future, said Three Rivers Superintendent Cris Gears.

If expenses for the parks exceed revenues, Three Rivers and Scott County will decide together how to bring in more revenue or where to cut services, Gears said. In a nod to suburban Hennepin taxpayers, Three Rivers has promised not to increase the park district's contribution beyond the $128,846, Gears has said.

From now on, administrative costs and operating costs will tracked separately, Gears said. "We are going to have the regional parks down there operating in a way that people can figure out what it costs."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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