Money to pay for repairs and maintenance at Minneapolis neighborhood parks can mostly come from existing city sources — and shouldn't require a property tax hike through a fall parks referendum — according to two veteran City Council members.

Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman will take their case to the City Council on Wednesday, unveiling a proposal that would forge an unprecedented financial relationship between City Hall and the semi-independent Park Board — historically wary partners. But the plan is already drawing skepticism from other members of the council and Mayor Betsy Hodges who question whether the city has the money to cover the park expenses while also addressing other needs like a projected gap in road funding.

Johnson and Goodman say the city could devote an extra $8 million to reviving rec centers and other infrastructure in the city's 157 local parks — which are distinct from the system's larger regional parks — and an extra $3 million for operations, starting in 2017. The plan would rely on a 1 percent increase in the taxes collected by the Park Board and potential savings of more than $7 million that won't be needed for pension obligations, among other possible sources.

"Leadership is not making the public take a vote on raising taxes. Leadership is solving the problem," said Goodman. "We need to do something and step in."

But Hodges, stressing her commitment to investing in both parks and street needs, said the proposal hasn't had appropriate financial and legal vetting from city staff.

"I'm concerned that the money being discussed isn't real," Hodges said. "And I wonder if the resolution has been drafted without a transparent process behind closed doors — certainly without my input. And I wonder if it's been done that way because folks know the money isn't real."

The deal does not specify a funding source for the bulk of the money over the next 20 years, but Johnson identified likely targets such as the pension savings and more than $700,000 in library debt payments the state will assume in 2017. The pension savings are expected from reduced contributions to an old city pension fund that fully merged into a statewide public plan quicker than was expected.

The Park Board is expected to vote on the plan as early as Wednesday night, with the support of President Liz Wielinski. Superintendent Jayne Miller said they are still prepared to take the matter to a referendum.

The planned parks referendum would raise at least $15 million annually over 20 years, a 5 percent levy increase. It would add about $66 to the tax bill of a median-value home worth $190,000. But City Hall hasn't approved it for a fall vote, and Johnson said she wants to avoid a hike of that magnitude.

The council will hear Johnson and Goodman's plan Wednesday, but is not expected to vote on it. Asked about it Tuesday, other council members had questions.
"I need to understand how we would balance support for the parks system with being able to fund our infrastructure [roads] gap," said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who wanted more information from staff.

Council Member Lisa Bender said the commitment will inevitably involve trade-offs with other city priorities, such as road repairs, which would normally be discussed in the larger budget process later in the year. "We do not have a magic money tree in City Hall," Bender said.

Park officials estimate the backlog of work on neighborhood park buildings and playgrounds has reached $110 million and would grow by another $46 million by 2020 without action. They tell of leaky roofs, crumbling sidewalks and other accumulating deficiencies. The increased money would let them increase mowing and tree-trimming frequency among other maintenance issues.

"It's a brilliant compromise," said Mark Andrew, the chairman of a planned pro-referendum campaign.

The deal also allows each side an out if there's a disaster, the tax base shrinks or the Legislature imposes levy limits or makes other changes that cut the property tax yield.

If the council opts to forgo Johnson and Goodman's plan, the Park Board faces an uncertain path toward a referendum.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732