Hello Kitty and leopard-print tape cover the bare patches in the pinkish-gray carpet at Hancock Recreation Center. When it rains or snow melts, employees set up buckets to catch the leaks in the art and dance room ceilings.
They do the best they can to make the center in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood inviting, said Liz Pearce-Lassiter, who manages it.
“I can’t do anything about 40-, 50-year-old carpet. I can’t do anything about tile that used to be white and now is gray,” she said. “It’s not welcoming.”
When Minneapolis decided last spring to spend an additional $11 million on parks maintenance each year for the next 20 years, St. Paul officials were watching closely. The city has been waiting for an analysis of its own maintenance needs, which is expected to arrive this week.
“It’s going to tell a similar story,” Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said. “We’re going to have a need … that’s into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
St. Paul has fallen behind on maintaining its park infrastructure, such as trails and recreation centers, City Council members said. As city leaders drew up the 2017 budget, some said park upkeep should be a priority.
“Coming out of the recession, I feel like parks capital maintenance may be the thing that suffered the most,” St. Paul City Council President Russ Stark said. “It’s just one of those things that is never going to be super exciting to people, but it’s clearly needed.”
The extent of the maintenance needs in St. Paul is about to get much clearer. The city hired Massachusetts-based consultant Ameresco to assess the condition of the city’s 148 park buildings and what it would cost to keep them in good working order. City staff expect to get Ameresco’s preliminary report in early January.
Then they have to figure out how to pay for the updates.
Sheree Abrams has been coming to the Hancock Recreation Center since 1991. As she played cards with her senior group, which meets there weekly, she ticked off complaints, like the leaking toilet and spotty heating system that occasionally forces them to wear winter coats indoors.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written to the city, and nothing gets done,” Abrams said.
The city spent about $1.6 million on parks capital maintenance in 2016, according to parks staff. That is roughly a quarter of the money the parks department requested for the purpose. And the money the department asked for would have only covered a quarter of the immediate maintenance needs — which total $20.2 million.
State cuts to local funding and an increased demand for services have exacerbated the situation, Hahm said, adding that the parks department has about half a billion dollars worth of assets to keep up.
“You can really see it everywhere,” Council Member Jane Prince said of the aging facilities. She was one of the majority of council members who voted to raise property taxes above what Mayor Chris Coleman proposed, in part to help cover park needs.
The council ended up designating another $635,000 for capital maintenance, on top of an additional $1.5 million Coleman put toward parks maintenance in his 2017 budget. The new funding would be a “down payment on this backlog,” Hahm said.
But it might not come through this year.
Budget staff recently put the money in a contingency fund. They may end up using it to cover the budget hole left by changes to the city’s right of way assessment process. Legal challenges forced the city to rethink the assessment process — in which property owners pay the cost of street maintenance — and in the next few months council members will decide what comes out of contingency and what is sacrificed.
Paying for repairs
Cities often target parks departments when they need to make budget cuts, said Adrian Benepe, a senior vice president with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
But recently communities seem to be recognizing the importance of parks, he said, noting that cities including Minneapolis and San Francisco have developed sophisticated, equity-focused approaches to park updates. In the November election, the Trust for Public Land tallied 87 ballot measures for conservation and park funding across the nation — 80 percent of which passed.
In Minneapolis, the City Council approved its 20-year park and road investment plan, which the city will pay for by raising taxes, issuing debt and tapping into cash reserves and fund balances.
Susan Bishop, vice chairwoman of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission, said she would be fine with raising taxes for parks programming and infrastructure in St. Paul, but she acknowledged that many residents do not share her view.
She is not sure if people would support a plan like the one in Minneapolis, but something needs to be done to keep the facilities from falling apart, she said.
The Ameresco study will suggest some ways the city could cut costs, Hahm said. And Stark said he has discussed possible new revenue sources, such as a sales tax increase and charging for some parking by the Como Park Conservatory.
While the city is just beginning to look into funding options, a survey conducted this summer made it clear where residents want the cash to go in the parks and recreation system. The top answer was “repair older park facilities.”
“Parks aren’t just a nice thing to have,” Bishop said. “They contribute to the vibrancy of the city. They contribute to the safety of the city. They help grow healthy, productive adults.”