City park funding on the ballot in Duluth, St. Cloud this year

Nestled in a neighborhood of Duluth, atop a rocky bluff overlooking Lake Superior, is the aptly named Observation Park. The view is great, but the park itself needs some work.

The Observation Park, shown here Wednesday, October 26, 2022, just west of downtown Duluth, hasn’t been significantly renovated in 70 years.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

“We have a terribly run-down athletic field with badly cordoned off basketball courts and tennis courts that are not safe to use today,” said Jim Filby Williams, who runs the property, parks and libraries. of the city of Duluth, as he strolled through the park.

Recently, the city used donations from local residents, businesses, and nonprofits to replace a hockey rink in the park with a small dog area, but the park hasn’t been significantly improved. most substantial in 70 years.

“What’s really needed is $2, $3, or $400,000 to remove all that sidewalk, rebuild it, and reuse it for contemporary activities,” Filby Williams said. He says those could be basketball, pickleball, skateboarding “or whatever the neighboring neighborhood says is important to them.

But Filby Williams said the city lacks the funds to make these capital improvements to this park and many of the city’s other 121 developed parks. It’s especially difficult for smaller neighborhood parks, which aren’t eligible for the grants or tourist taxes that help fund larger Duluth parks and trails, such as the Lakewalk or Enger and Hartley Parks.

A playpen is behind a chain link fence.

Duluth officials are proposing to raise the city’s property tax to help fund capital projects and the maintenance of neighborhood parks like this one in Duluth.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

The city is therefore asking voters to help it, and this is not the first time.

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Ten years ago, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Duluth voters approved a property tax hike to raise $2.6 million a year to help support city parks.

“The introduction of the levy at this time saved Duluth’s parks. Period,” said Filby Williams.

But he said the funding model had what is now seen as a fatal flaw. The voter-approved levy is capped. He can never grow. Meanwhile, the cost of improving parks keeps increasing.

Now the city is asking voters to change the park fund levy from a fixed dollar amount to a percentage of the property’s value. This would increase tax revenue for the parks to approximately $4.1 million, an amount that would grow as Duluth’s tax base grows. It would also increase annual taxes on a median-priced home by nearly $50 per year.

It’s a milestone that cities in Minnesota and across the country are increasingly taking; cash-strapped cities struggle to balance funding for parks with other services they provide, such as public safety and infrastructure.

This year, at least three Minnesota cities — Duluth, St. Cloud and Waite Park — are asking voters to raise their taxes to pay for parks and trails. Nationally, there are 62 state and local park or land conservation actions on the ballot this year, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to public spending on parks and conservation, it’s typically lower priority than many other demands that cities face,” said Will Abberger of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

“And that’s why ballot measures like the one in Duluth are so important.”

Pay for parks

In 2011, 57 percent of Duluth voters supported the park tax, even as voters on the same ballot rejected three other demands for property tax increases to increase funding for local schools.

Since then, Duluth has earned a reputation as an outdoor recreation destination by investing in hiking and mountain biking trails, walking trails, and even an ice climbing park. Funding from the park tax has been used to restore many of the city’s major destination parks.

This time, officials say their priority is to improve neighborhood parks and community sports venues.

A man holds a child in his arms, people gather for a meeting behind them.

Joe Fisher and his daughter Jade attended a community meeting at Portman Park in Duluth on Friday, October 28, 2022 about the proposed municipal park tax. Fisher’s kids are playing hockey at the park and he worries about the future of community athletics.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

After a recent public meeting on the proposal at Portman Park on the city’s east side, Joseph Decker said he planned to support the park tax.

“I’ve always been so grateful to have these resources nearby in town, where, no matter what neighborhood I’m in at the time or where my friends live, there’s a park nearby. C It’s such a valuable resource to our city’s quality of life to invest in these parks,” Decker said.

But the plan was pushed back. The Duluth newspaper recommended voting against, arguing that this is a terrible time to ask for a tax hike.

At that same meeting, in response to a question about whether an allocation from the city’s general fund might be appropriate if the need was so drastic, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the city could raise property taxes. and not ask the voters the question directly.

“We could cut other services to make more money available for parks,” Larson said. “I don’t see a way that it works, to be really honest.”

She said nearly half of the city’s budget goes to public safety.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room there,” she said.

Cities across the country seeking funding for parks

Duluth is not alone. Cities across the country are struggling to pay for their parks.

The Trust for Public Land found that the country’s 100 largest cities spend less per capita on their parks than they did in 2007, before the financial crisis.

In St. Cloud, voters are being asked to approve a property tax increase so the city can spend $20 million over the next three years on park improvements. As in Duluth, the money would be used to maintain and restore neighborhood parks, Mayor Dave Kleis said.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis talks about the city's newest park.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis supports a referendum to fund city parks.

Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

That could mean adding playground equipment, he said, “or maybe taking a tennis court and turning it into a pickleball court. It could be taking what used to be a paddling pool and making it a paddling pool.

Kleis said use of the city’s nearly 100 parks has increased during the pandemic and hasn’t decreased. He argues that parks are essential to economic development.

“One of the big things in attracting and retaining workers is quality of life. And parks are a big part of that, trails are a big part of that, recreation is a big part of that,” Kleis said.

Duluth officials make a similar argument. Filby Williams said the city’s green spaces attract residents, help businesses recruit workers and drive the city’s vital tourism industry.

“And so the underinvestment in park spaces has even greater consequences in Duluth than it would in other communities, where parks and green spaces are less defining to the community,” Filby said. Williams.

Supporting State Parks History

If history is any indication, the measures in Duluth and St. Cloud are likely to pass.

According to the Trust for Public Land, since 1988 there have been 37 state or local parks or land conservation measures on the ballot in Minnesota. Thirty-one passed, a higher success rate than park referendums nationwide.

That includes a referendum two years ago in Rochester, Minn., where more than 60% of voters approved a $2 million annual property tax to help pay for parks.

It also includes the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment that voters passed in 2008, which increased the state sales tax to pay for parks and trails, as well as arts and culture and the protection of the environment.

“So when voters in Minnesota were given the opportunity to vote to dedicate funds to parks and conservation, they overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes,'” Abberger said.

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