Minneapolis park officials say the city's nationally renowned park system is at risk of deteriorating rapidly unless more money is committed to repair aging facilities.

Even with modest tax levy increases, the city's semi-independent Park Board envisions the gap between available money and needed expenses growing from $5.4 million next year to nearly $9 million by 2019.

The system's superintendent, Jayne Miller, said they are juggling a higher demand for services and rising health care costs with the growing maintenance needs at neighborhood recreation centers, playgrounds and wading pools — some of which are half a century old.

"If we continue down the path that has been kind of laid for our neighborhood parks, if we don't figure out how to invest in them, that's going to be unacceptable to this community," Miller said. "The neighborhood parks are the heart and soul of this community and are the heart and soul of the parks system."

Park officials' desire for more money is likely to test how much Minneapolis residents value having the best parks vs. how much they are willing to pay for them.

Minneapolis residents are already seeing the pressure for more park money in the city's 2015 property tax levy. The Park Board's request for $2 million more in property tax money next year was one of two primary drivers behind Mayor Betsy Hodges' proposed $6.7 million levy increase.

The Park Board's general fund budget was about $66 million in 2014.

The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that works to expand parks, ranked Minneapolis as the top park system in the nation in 2013 and 2014. The ranking was based on residents' access to parks, the amount of the city devoted to parkland and the public investment in the system.

Covering 6,790 acres of land and water, Minneapolis' parks system features 50 recreation centers, 112 playgrounds, 63 wading pools and 12 gardens. It employs the equivalent of 486 full-time employees.

Some of those recreation centers, built in the 1960s and 1970s, need new roofs and heating-cooling systems. Many aging wading pools opened late this year because of repairs.

"We do our best not to show people what terrible condition the boilers are in. We patch and make the best of everything we can," park Commissioner Scott Vreeland said. "But at some point, the costs outpace the maintenance."

Facing its own funding constraints several years ago, St. Paul scaled back its system. The city demolished three recreation centers and handed over operations of 15 others to nonprofit organizations, cutting the city-operated centers nearly in half, from 42 to 24. Two of the city's money-losing golf courses were turned over to private management firms.

But when Minneapolis park leaders mulled closing more than 24 wading pools and removing port-a-potties to cut costs a decade ago, the public revolted.

"The overall message is that people in this city seem to be comfortable with keeping park services at the level they're at now or increasing those services and are willing to pay for that increase," said Commissioner John Erwin, who was on the Park Board at the time.

Some of the requested repairs can be hard to spot to the naked eye. Watching his son use a sand digger at Lynnhurst park on Thursday, Scott Thompson didn't notice any obvious problems around him. "It really has not occurred to me that there have been upkeep issues at this park," Thompson said.

Commissioner Brad Bourn pointed to sandboxes filled with grass, eroding slopes and a patchy field on a subsequent tour of the area.

"This field hasn't had attention in a while," he said, while walking toward an asphalt-strewn sidewalk.

Budget pressures

Most of the budget pressures are being felt in neighborhood parks, which house the system's athletic programs and recreation centers but constitute just about 29 percent of the system's overall acreage. Regional parks, such as those in the Chain of Lakes, benefit from other more regional funding streams.

While the system's workforce has decreased 19 percent since 2003, some law changes out of park officials' control have also driven up employment costs. Health care costs had already increased dramatically in the last 10 years before the new federal health insurance overhaul required the board to provide health coverage for its many part-time employees starting next year. The state's new minimum wage hike will also drive up wages for seasonal employees, like those working at golf courses.

The demand on the parks, meanwhile, has increased. The number of visits to regional and neighborhood parks has grown from 19 million in 2006 to 21.4 million in 2013.

To repair and replace aging infrastructure, the board has been diverting between $2 million and $3 million a year from its operating budget into its capital program, coupled with new debt and money levied specifically for such projects. But Miller said the $6 million committed altogether last year to neighborhood capital projects remains far below the $14 million they need, not including a $10 million overhaul of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, funded largely through state money.

Miller added that park systems are by their nature heavily reliant on amenities that, unlike city sewer and water infrastructure, are not designed to pay for themselves.

"It's rec centers, it's paths, it's lighting, it's turf, it's wading pools, it's roofs, it's sidewalks," she said. The booming construction business across the Twin Cities has also driven up construction costs.

Some of the solutions under consideration include raising the Park Board's authorized ability to borrow money for projects, asking the Legislature for more funds, or directly asking voters through a referendum whether they would pay more in their annual taxes.

City Council President Barb Johnson, one of the council's toughest spending critics, was sympathetic to the budget dilemma. She credited the board's restraint in recent years that allowed the city to reduce its overall debt during a difficult financial time.

"Sometimes you've got to spend some money," Johnson said. "And we've been really tight with them over the last probably … 10 years."

The Park Board is planning an assessment of its services and facilities to ensure they align properly with the community's needs, which should be complete by next fall. Despite its existing funding constraints, however, the board has also been acquiring new properties along the riverfront in recent years.

Asked why the system is expanding, Commissioner Erwin said the development of new parkland has historically proved to be an important driver of economic development. "If you look at property values throughout the city, they increase as you approach parkways, lakes and parks," Erwin said.

He and others also referenced the values instilled by the system's early visionaries.

"I think the Theodore Wirth idea of having a park within walking distance of everybody's home is what gives us the system that we have today," board President Liz Wielinski said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper