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City Council passes $800M funding plan for parks, streets

Updated: May 5, 2016 - 1:41 pm

The City Council voted unanimously Friday to approve a new $800 million long-term funding plan for the city’s neighborhood parks and streets — heralded as a historic agreement among city and park leaders addressing significant infrastructure needs in Minneapolis.

The plan dedicates $22 million in new money for street projects annually along with $11 million for neighborhood parks — a compromise proposal crafted by Mayor Betsy Hodges, City Council and Park Board officials. Park leaders had previously been considering moving ahead with a referendum for voters this fall.

City and park leaders embraced after the vote and City Council chambers erupted in applause.

“This is a generational moment for the City of Minneapolis,” Hodges said. “This agreement addresses the critical infrastructure and operating gaps for both our streets and our neighborhood park system, and it invests in infrastructure equitably. It provides clear, transparent sources of funding and acknowledges that we’re making real, tough choices.”

Mayor Betsy Hodges signs the funding agreement for the city's parks and streets. Submitted photo
Mayor Betsy Hodges signs the funding agreement for the city’s parks and streets. Submitted photo

The plan addresses a projected $15 million annual funding gap for capital needs in neighborhood parks and an estimated $30 million annual funding gap for street repairs and reconstruction projects.

The agreement ramps up next January with an initial $1.5 million in startup funds that will be reimbursed to the Park Board, which Superintendent Jayne Miller has said will be used for hiring and planning for the additional funding.

Miller called the funding plan a “game changer” for the Park Board, the City of Minneapolis and residents.

“The ordinance provides 20 years of maintenance, rehabilitation and capital funding for our neighborhood parks,” she said. “This funding will benefit parks and park users throughout the city, and will be implemented using a criteria based system to ensure investments address racial and economic equity.”

The plan taps a variety of funding sources, but most heavily relies on property taxes, which will fund 82 percent of the plan, said Mark Ruff, the city’s new chief financial officer.

The remainder will come from sales taxes, stormwater fees and issuing new debt, among other things.

Overall, the impact on taxpayers will be minimal, he noted, as the funding plan will account for less than 2 percent of the city’s annual expenditures. The city’s annual budget is about $1.3 billion.

The city’s proposed tax levy would increase to 4.8 percent in 2017 and the funding plan’s future impact on the levy would be about an 0.7 percent increase each year.

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The semi-autonomous Park Board will have complete authority to spend its share of the money on neighborhood parks. The board will have to present a five-year project schedule to the Council before it adopts the city’s 2017 budget and each subsequent year under the plan.

The Park Board will take up its own version of the ordinance May 4 and a public hearing has been set for May 18.

The agreement came after City Council President Barb Johnson and City Council Member Lisa Goodman had proposed an ordinance backed by park leaders that would have dedicated $13.5 million annually for the parks, but Hodges and other Council members expressed concerns that the plan lacked specifics about funding sources.

Since then they have been working on a compromise solution.

“I celebrate today,” Johnson said. “This kind of collaboration is not only in the best interest of city and park leadership, it’s also in the best interest of everyone in Minneapolis who wants better streets and better parks for their neighbors, families and future generations.”

Goodman said she had “unbelievable emotion and pride” about how the deal came together.

“Parks are the only thing that weave through all the other things we collectively do as a city,” she said.

A focus on equity

The Council’s Committee of the Whole heard from supporters and opponents of the funding plan at a public hearing April 27.

The plan includes provisions requiring leaders to use a racial equity framework when determining priorities for street projects and neighborhood parks.

Several people testified at the hearing with concerns about discrimination and a hostile work environment for park employees of color.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor and president of the Minneapolis NAACP, along with many others, urged Council members to delay a vote on parks funding until the allegations of discrimination have been adequately addressed and the Park Board has outlined a specific plan showing how resources will be equitably distributed throughout Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Levy-Pounds said she lives near Farview Park in North Minneapolis and said it has less resources compared to parks in southwest Minneapolis.

The University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Community Justice Project — a civil rights legal clinic led by Levy-Pounds — has been investigating the Park Board for allegations of discriminatory employment practices.

In a letter sent to Council members, students involved in the project raised doubts about whether park leaders are willing to make substantive changes to address the concerns of employees of color.

Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller and Park Board President Liz Wielinski sent the Council a letter responding to the concerns of the Community Justice Project.

The city’s parks system has been working with a variety of groups on racial equity since 2011 and plans are underway to post its ongoing efforts on its website, they wrote.

Wielinski said most of the allegations referenced by the Community Justice Project refer back to a report from 2011, which came out two weeks after Miller became superintendent. Since then she said Miller has been a leader on efforts to address inequities.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and more than 20 parks employees underwent racial equity training and racial equity toolkits were used in several planning projects last year.

City Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) said he was troubled by the comments about discriminatory practices raised by speakers at the public hearing.

He said “institutional racism can be baked very deeply” into government systems.

He said he hoped city and park leaders can work together to implement best practices to address the problem, noting the city’s hiring managers are undergoing implicit bias training.

Parks Commissioner Anita Tabb, whose district includes parks in the downtown area and Chain of Lakes, said the new funding plan “is all about equity” and will help ensure the city has “one tier” of high quality parks.

A ‘historic’ agreement

Local leaders lauded Park and Council leaders for collaborating on the funding plan and creating a new spirit of cooperation after having a dysfunctional relationship for many years.

Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10) called the plan a “really hopeful moment for Minneapolis.”

“I think this is a really important moment in this Council,” Bender said. “You know, we’ve had some pretty public debates, we’ve had divided votes, and I think that this shows that we will come together when we need to do really great things for our city.”

Gordon said he had doubts that the city and Park Board could come to a consensus so quickly given the long history of acrimony between the two government bodies.

“I was imagining a disastrous train wreck,” he said. “By golly, you proved me wrong.”

Council Member Abdi Warsame (Ward 6) called the plan the biggest investment that the city has made in terms of addressing a racial equity gap.

“For us this is a big deal that we could make such an agreement with the Park Board. I think this sends a good message, a message of collaboration and consensus building, to our city,” he said.

Save Our Minneapolis Parks, a citizen group supporting the board’s ballot measure, endorsed the compromise.

“This compromise is a historic victory for our city’s neighborhood park system,” said Mark Andrew, who chairs the group, in a statement. “We want to thank the entire City Council and the mayor for their work on this issue. They have shown true leadership and improved our city for the next generation of Minneapolis residents.”

Wielinski, who ran up to shake Council President Johnson’s hand after the vote, said she was “deeply grateful” for everyone who worked on the agreement.

“This is a historic time,” she said. “I am excited to cast my vote for our Board’s approval of a concurrent ordinance in May.”

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At a glance: Funding agreement for neighborhood parks, streets

Overview: A 20-year, $800 million funding plan to address infrastructure needs in the city’s neighborhood parks and for city streets. Annually, the plan will provide $22 million for street reconstruction/repair projects and $11 million for neighborhood parks’ capital needs and operations. The plan also specifies that the racial equity framework must be used when determining priorities.

Funding sources: About 82 percent of the funding program will be paid for through property taxes with the remainder financed through sales taxes, issuing new debt and city fees, among other things. The impact on the property tax levy will be about 0.7 percent annually. In 2017, the proposed levy increase is 4.86 percent — about $14.48 million.

What’s next: The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will discuss a concurrent ordinance that mirrors the one passed by the city May 4 and May 18. The May 18 meeting will include a public hearing. Both meetings start at 5 p.m. at Park Board headquarters, 2117 W. River Road.