Gov. Mark Dayton threatened Tuesday to cut state aid for signature Minneapolis parks like the Chain of Lakes in retaliation for the Park and Recreation Board’s objections to Southwest light rail.
Dayton proposed nixing $3.6 million in state aid to Minneapolis’ regional parks over the next two years, jeopardizing a key source of funding for the most-visited parks in the city. The governor cited the Park Board’s “continuing efforts to obstruct progress” on the Southwest light-rail project as the reason for the change, which is subject to approval by the Legislature.
The Park Board has invested about $500,000 in engineering studies of a proposed tunnel under the Kenilworth channel at the Chain of Lakes.
“I don’t think state money should be going for them to spend a half-million dollars on consultants to just obstruct the overall purpose of the project,” Dayton said at a news conference. He added that the board should not receive state money to “cause this kind of mayhem.”
Park Board President Liz Wielinski countered that the board has an obligation to protect parkland in the city and has communicated its concerns with components of the Southwest project since 2012. She added that other elements are slowing the project, including lack of definitive state funding.
“I am extremely disappointed that the governor wants to punish the Park Board and more than 15 million users of regional parks in Minneapolis because the Met Council did not do their job in their pursuit of taking parkland,” Wielinski said in a statement.
Dayton will release an updated budget proposal in early March. He said the Park Board could still get his support for state money if the Met Council chair informs him that progress has been made toward a resolution.
Minneapolis is one of 10 local park agencies that receive state aid for its regional parks, which include the Mississippi riverfront, Theodore Wirth Park and Minnehaha Falls. The regional parks also benefit from state Legacy Amendment funds and a direct Metropolitan Council allocation, which were not targeted Tuesday.
The proposal would specifically eliminate a $634,000 appropriation from the state’s general fund for operations and maintenance of those parks and $1.25 million in lottery proceeds for project costs. The operations aid covers about 10 percent of the total costs of running those parks, said superintendent Jayne Miller. The latest budget shows that the lottery dollars are expected to cover just a quarter of the regional park capital needs in 2016.
The move would also eliminate Minneapolis as an eligible recipient of that funding into the future, potentially delivering a major blow to the agency’s budget. It is already struggling to maintain neighborhood parks, which are supported largely through property taxes.
“If we have used all of our money then in the regional parks … we’ll probably end up closing recreation centers or something like that,” Wielinski said in an interview.
At issue is a bridge the Met Council has proposed building over the channel connecting Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake to accommodate Southwest light rail, freight train and recreational trail traffic. The light-rail train would then dip into a tunnel south of the bridge.
The Park Board is examining the feasibility of instead continuing the tunnel under the channel, which the Met Council has said would prove both costly and time-consuming. The board has entered into two contracts with Brierley Associates to conduct engineering studies.
Another group, the Lakes and Parks Alliance, is simultaneously suing to stop the project over objections about a lack of up-to-date environmental studies.
The $1.6 billion Southwest light-rail line would extend the existing Green Line nearly 16 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Its path through Minneapolis has proved controversial because it runs through parkland and many of the stops are hard to access.
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.