St. Paul’s backlog of parks and recreation maintenance would cost $57 million to fix, and the bill for repairs could stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars if the city continues with its current funding level.
A consulting firm presented the cost Wednesday to City Council members, leaving them to contemplate how to cover growing maintenance expenses. The city has nearly 13 million square feet of parks facilities, from trails to athletic courts to community centers, and it has been struggling to keep them in good shape as they age, according to a report.
St. Paul budgeted $1.5 million for parks maintenance this year, an insufficient sum to combat the problems that come with an aging system, like cracked trails, leaking recreation center roofs and mechanical issues. To keep the facilities in fair condition, the city would need to spend $10.6 million a year, Massachusetts-based consultant Ameresco found.
Council Member Amy Brendmoen described the long-standing challenge with funding maintenance projects. She said “boring” projects like fixing a parking lot or sealcoating an asphalt path compete with recreation programming and services for limited funds. The maintenance projects fall by the wayside.
“When we get right down to the wire, what are we going to choose? Kids play areas or sealcoating?” Brendmoen asked. But, she added, their decisions over the years to prioritize kids’ programs and services have resulted in bigger maintenance bills for the city.
Despite the high costs identified in Ameresco’s report, Senior Vice President Tim Dettlaff said the findings were positive for St. Paul. The company does similar assessments for municipalities across the U.S. and Canada, and Dettlaff said St. Paul is above average on facility upkeep.
Overall, the city’s park and recreation spaces — valued at $600 million — are in fair condition based on an industry standard used to rank facilities, he said.
“It’s a big number,” Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said of the $57 million backlog. “But being in that [fair] range is good.”
However, some pieces of the parks system fall below the fair ranking. Athletic courts and tot lots — playgrounds for young children — are in poor condition, according to the report. Trails and parking lots are in critical condition, which is the worst ranking.
How to cover costs?
Whether St. Paul residents would be willing to chip in more for maintenance remains to be seen. They are already likely facing increased property taxes in 2018, as the city has to find new funding sources for street upkeep.
The city previously relied on right-of-way assessments to pay for street maintenance, but it has to shift away from that funding mechanism following a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the assessments are an additional tax.
The Trust for Public Land studied St. Paul’s options to pay for parks maintenance long-term, and the findings were presented to the council Wednesday. They looked at general obligation bonds and taxes on property, soda, sales or food and beverages. The Trust suggested St. Paul survey voters and test their tolerance for added taxes.
That survey will occur in tandem with this year’s budget process, Hahm said. Over the past eight years, Minnesotans in cities across the state have supported 75 percent of ballot measures to fund parks and conservation, he said.
“People love their parks, and if there’s a good case, they are willing to invest in them,” Hahm said.
Minneapolis faces a similar maintenance funding gap, and it decided last year to spend an additional $11 million annually on parks and street maintenance over two decades. It is paying for the work by raising property taxes, issuing debt and dipping into reserves.
Council Member Jane Prince said St. Paul should stop constructing new recreation facilities while it pays for upkeep.
“We can always find the capital dollars to build things, and we don’t keep up with the operating dollars to maintain things,” Prince said.
The city has invested more than $100 million in maintaining parks facilities, Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement, adding that the Trust for Public Land ranked the city’s park system the second best in the country this year.
“We all know that St. Paul is facing a tight budget year in 2018,” Coleman said. “The Ameresco assessment enables us to take a data-driven approach to determine what tools we use for funding future park maintenance.”