There's good news for park commissioners who want a referendum to prop up neighborhood parks --  the climate for raising property taxes for keeping up parks has improved immensely since a 2009 survey conducted in the depths of the recession.

Seventy-seven percent of the 500 residents polled this spring said they support a property tax increase to maintain the physical condition programs and services of parks. Just 11 percent oppose that. That's up by more than 40 percentage points since a similar question was asked in 2009 by the same firm. The amount of any increase was not specified.

“I’m glad to hear that we’re still beloved by the citizens and they’re willing to pay to keep what they’ve got,” said Park Board President Liz Wielinski.

In the earlier survey, conducted when many residents were concerned about holding on to their homes and jobs, only 35 percent favored a tax increase to maintain services, while 44 percent were opposed. Both polls calculated a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

"Timing is everything when you're going to go out and do a referendum," Wielinski said.

The survey by the Morris Leatherman firm found Minneapolis parks have a strong reservoir of good will among city residents. But a potential referendum campaign to raise taxes for neighborhood parks would need to convince voters that some neighborhood facilities are in bad shape and the money ask is for addressing that, not new stuff.

Those are some takeaways from the initial polling results presented by pollster Bill Morris to park commissioners during a budget retreat Wednesday. They'll get a more nuanced look at the survey results  at their regular meeting next Wednesday.

Ninety-five percent of those polled rated city parks as good or excellent. That's the highest rating of any park system for which the firm has polled in the Twin Cities area, Morris said.

But one problem for proceeding with a referendum is that 94 percent of those polled rated city parks good or excellent for appearance and maintenance. That could be a barrier if commissioners decide later this year to ask voters for more money to address what Superintendent Jayne Miller calls an alarming backlog of work in neighborhood parks.

Some of the needs that she wants addressed are visible, such as cracking sidewalks, or worn or weedy ball fields. But many others are less obvious, such as upgrading the mechanical systems and energy efficiency of park buildings that mostly date to the 1960s and 1970s, or replacing their worn roofs.

For example, the system is on a 40- to 50-year cycle for replacing the roofs of its 62 park buildings, something it would like to improve to a 20- to 25-year cycle. That would require another $400,000 annually. Just quadrupling the amount of trail repair work done in local parks to one mile per year would cost another $625,000 annually.

One key finding in the poll is that support for a property tax increase for parks depends on how it is pitched. When asked whether they'd support a property tax increase for enhancing parks and services, rather than merely maintaining them, residents polled opposed raising taxes by a 59 percent to 24 percent margin.

Wielinski compared that to a homeowner knowing a roof must be replaced while realizing that finances dictate holding off on an addition.

The poll questions didn't try to determine the degree if support for higher taxes for neighborhood parks as opposed to regional parks. There's also a subtle difference in the wording of the tax question between 2009 and 2015. The earlier poll asked about more money for maintaining or enhancing "services," while this year's survey asked about "infrastructure, programs and services."  

Superintendent Jayne Miller also disclosed that she's interested in getting some additional operating money for neighborhood parks out of whatever strategy for addressing bricks, mortar and grass that the board ultimately adopts.

One poll finding that could affect how that happens is that at least 82 percent of those responding said they'd support such strategies as adding more concessions and rental busineses to parks, adding more corporate sponsorship in parks, and selling naming rights. Those likely are more feasible in regional and larger parks than smaller neighborhood parks.

(Bench in need of repairs at Bohanon Park. Photo by Eric Roper)