As supporters of raising more money for neighborhood parks in Minneapolis gathered Tuesday night to assess their chances for a referendum, the mayor’s office is suggesting that the proposal be pushed off for a year to go before voters in tandem with a streets referendum.

Park advocates have been organizing with a referendum in mind for 2016, when the presidential election will boost turnout. But the mayoral suggestion would delay the issue until the city election in 2017, when turnout is typically much lower.

Details of a potential referendum to raise funds for streets are murky, but park advocates have been charging ahead to address what they describe as a $9 million annual difference between available money and capital needs for neighborhood playfields and buildings.

That gap “has gone from ugly to alarming,” said former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew at the meeting at Powderhorn Park, which drew about 50 people. Speakers were peppered with questions about whether the park system can spend a big increase and whether regional parks are diverting money.

Backers said that unless there’s decided opinion against a park funding referendum, they’ll move ahead, assuming the Minneapolis Park Board signs off on a proposal this fall.

A referendum feasibility study has been completed. The group already has approached businessman Dean Phillips about paying directly for polling more detailed than a survey conducted for the board.

Park Board President Liz Wielinski said the mayor’s office asked her to consider delaying the park referendum for a “road and bridge referendum” in 2017. But she said she’d prefer the higher turnout in 2016. City Council President Barb Johnson said she’s against the idea of a special referendum to raise money for streets. She said basic services needed to be funded in the ongoing budget through property taxes.

Asked about that, Mayor Betsy Hodges said through a spokeswoman: “Both neighborhood parks and city roads and bridges have clear infrastructure needs. I have talked with city and Park Board leaders about the best ways to meet them. Those conversations have included the Park Board’s potential referendum as well as other tools the city may have, and the possible timing of them.”

A core group including Andrew and Carol Becker, a member of the city Board of Estimate and Taxation, has been organizing for a pro-referendum campaign. A Park Board poll early this year found voters far more willing to pay to maintain current “infrastructure programs and services” than to improve them.

A public forum later this month will discuss what other cities have done to increase funding for their parks. That session is scheduled for Sept. 29 from 6-8:30 p.m. at Walker Art Center.


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