Minneapolis park Superintendent Jayne Miller Wednesday formally proposed that all city residents vote in November on a referendum that would generate about $300 million over 20 years for neighborhood parks in Minneapolis.

The proposal would tie the increased park spending to the city’s taxable property base, generating an estimated $15 million initially. The owner of a $190,000 single-family house — close to the city median value — would pay an estimated $65.53 more per year initially.

Miller’s proposal would kick in for 2018 taxes to give the park system time to gear up for the funding surge. She proposed levying the increase on a pay-as- you-go basis rather than selling bonds and incurring interest costs to pay them off.

Her proposal to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Wednesday evening is expected to gain board approval, probably later in January. The idea of a park funding referendum has been around since at least 2000, and several commissioners greeted the proposal warmly.

The Park Board lacks the power to put the matter before voters. Miller said she and board President Liz Wielinski plan to ask the City Council to forward the idea to voters, but also will discuss with state legislators the alternative of having them put the proposal on the ballot. Other options involve asking the city’s Charter Commission to propose the referendum, with the council limited to deciding ballot wording, or getting the matter before voters by a more time-consuming petition route.

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, who will chair the pro-referendum effort, told the board: “The public values our parks more than any other asset.”

Miller said she won’t come forward until April with a detailed list of projects for the first five years, in which an estimated $77.6 million in new money would be available. One priority would be to speed up maintenance cycles. For example, mowing frequency would drop from every two weeks to every 10 days, tree pruning from every 10 years to every five, and the number of hours spent on building maintenance would quadruple.

Another priority would be to fix leaky roofs or balky furnaces at park buildings that can’t wait until a more systematic facilities review gets underway.

The biggest chunk of the money in the first five years — about $43 million — would be devoted to park improvements such as carrying out previously approved but unfunded master plans for individual parks rather than catching up on repair and replacement backlog.

That’s a potentially risky emphasis because residents polled for the board earlier this year said they’d much rather fix things in parks than add new features. It also a different emphasis than the argument that buildings and playfields are falling apart that has been the core of the pitch for a referendum so far.

Miller’s proposal is the culmination of five years in which she has tried to keep the park budget balanced with shifts, efficiency investments in tree-trimming and trash collection, and by maintaining a workforce at almost 20 percent fewer people than before she assumed the job.

She said it’s now time for voters to make a fundamental financial decision on whether to invest in their parks or to face up to hard decisions on closing facilities.

The Park Board counts 157 neighborhood parks, which are separate from the larger regional parks that typically abut a river, creek or lake. The neighborhood parks range from mere grassed triangles with no services to such intensively used spaces as downtown’s Loring Park, the South Side’s Pearl Park or Northeast Park.

 

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