In late July, Bob Albee heard a rumor. The Phillips Pool and Gym, where Ventura Village teens gather to play basketball and hang out, was closing down. The gym had a bad boiler, and according to Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff, there was no money to fix it.
Albee was furious. As secretary of the Ventura Village neighborhood association, he was well aware that his neighborhood—one of four that make up Phillips in south Minneapolis—was among the youngest, poorest, and at one time most crime-ridden in the city. Why was a resource that kept kids off the streets being mothballed?
"We're essentially being red-lined," Albee complained. "When you visit the other parks and see what facilities there are—especially on the outer ring—I have a lot of really angry kids.... Who would do this to inner-city people?"
Albee's feelings echoed those of Kristy Clemons, a Phillips community organizer who works with Sustainable Progress Through Engaging Active Citizens. She recalls that back in 1999, residents worked with an architect to design a community and cultural center for Peavey Park in Phillips. The center was to have educational and afterschool programs, and serve as a beacon of hope for the neighborhood. Now eight years have passed, and nothing has been built.
Clemons says services at Peavey Park are lacking compared to those available at the equally sized Linden Hills Park. "Their facilities are much more upkept," Clemons says. "It makes you wonder how the park board is distributing the money."
Until the 1960s, many Minneapolis parks were developed and funded based on surrounding property tax values. Under what is known as the Elwell law, richer areas got nicer facilities because they could pay for them. The law is still on the books, but policy has changed. As part of its long-term planning in the 1960s, the park board decided to redirect resources to less-affluent areas. But the legacy of inequality is still visible in places like Phillips and north Minneapolis. It's a point that hasn't been part of the political brouhaha currently raging over who should control the parks.
"People—it's the really important part, and it can get lost in the shuffle," says Shelley Martin, an organizer who works with Clemons.
Earlier this year, a handful of City Council members moved to eliminate the park board and bring the parks under city control. That effort died down, but the park board is now pushing to levy its own taxes. If the park board gets its way, the proposal will be on the ballot this fall.
The city has its own ideas. Currently, the Board of Estimate and Taxation—made up of two City Council members, the mayor, one park commissioner, and two public members—determines how much property tax revenue goes to the city and how much goes to parks. If the city's initiative passes, the board would be eliminated and the city would decide unilaterally.
"I do think there needs to be one group of people where the buck stops with them, with regard to the city's tax policy," says Ward Seven City Councilmember Lisa Goodman. "That's the problem with the independently elected park board. No one knows who is accountable."
That perspective irritates park board members, who are still incensed about a broken funding promise. Back in 2001, the City Council struck a long-term deal with the park board to provide money for capital projects such as the community center planned for Peavey. But in 2003, when Mayor R.T. Rybak took office amid state budget cuts to local government, he killed the deal. Over the next seven years, parks got about $40.7 million less than planned.
Park commissioners say that taxing authority is needed because the city doesn't give them enough money. "We have aging infrastructure that is not getting funded," Vreeland says. "For me, the biggest issue is the city does not think it is important enough to maintain our current park structures to bond for their repair and replacement."
The park's ability to levy taxes would be limited by the Legislature. "We're not looking to try to do something that would put an undue burden on the city taxpayer, but really to try to create some reasonableness in being able to maintain our infrastructure," says Mary Merrill Anderson, park board commissioner.
City Council members counter that giving parks the authority to tax is not the most efficient way for local government to run.
Neither addresses the root of the problem: a simple lack of money to go around. Peavey won't be built next week, admits Anderson—"essentially, because we have not had any funding available for that to happen."
Although Phillips has gotten $4.1 million for a new community center about 10 blocks away from Peavey Park, most of it came from the state, not the local parks budget. Commissioners say that parks in low-income neighborhoods—such as Farview in north Minneapolis and Whittier in south Minneapolis—receive comparable funding to tonier areas such as Linden Hills.
But the park board hasn't kept track of the total funding for each park, so it's hard to know how much money has been channeled to each neighborhood.
"Where is the money going and who is being served? That's the information I've been trying to get for years," says Ward Six Councilmember Robert Lilligren, who represents Phillips.
It doesn't really matter who is in charge, says Albee, as long as he knows who to complain to. And, at least recently, his complaints have been heard: The park board has asked the city for money to keep the Phillips Gym and Pool open.
"If we have what we consider to be deliberate or coincidental or accidental or consequential red-lining of our community," Albee says, "we want to kick some butts."