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Minneapolis may seek a tax hike to fix its neglected parks

The sad state of Minneapolis' neighborhood parks.

The sad state of Minneapolis' neighborhood parks.

Minneapolis has 157 neighborhood parks, and they're in dire need of love, the Park Board says. Playgrounds need paint jobs, chain fences need mending, graffiti needs scrubbing.

Parks and Rec has a major backlog of upkeep, but hasn't had enough cash for it since 2002, says superintendent Jayne Miller.

At the time, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton promised to give the parks $10 million over a number of years. But when R.T. Rybak won the office in 2001, he ditched that promise. Those were difficult economic times, and cuts had to be made. As a result, Parks and Rec laid off more than 130 people and cut back on maintenance. Some parks got a little shabbier.  

Now, Miller's asking for some of that money. Neighborhood parks, which are supported solely through property taxes, have been underfunded by about $9 million annually, she says. Wednesday night, she proposed adding a referendum to the November 2016 ballot for a property tax increase that would produce $15 million every year for 20 years. 

"There are tough choices we have to make about where we even start because we can't do it all, and it's about getting things to where they are functional," Miller says. "Yes, we will have some shiny toys, but those shiny toys will be about functionality and not about some Taj Mahal."

The public loves greenery and would be likely to support a tax increase if it would preserve the parks just as they are, according to a 2015 study. An overwhelming 95 percent of study participants agreed that the park system is a valuable asset, and 90 percent believed that maintaining parks contribute to the economy. 

However, folks were leery of raising taxes any more than necessary — only 24 percent supported a tax hike. 

For Miller's referendum to succeed, she would need to persuade people to believe that the improvements are actually worth it. That includes things like increasing the rate of lawn mowing from a 14-day cycle to a 10-day cycle (a difference of $875,000) and repairing trails at a rate of one mile a year — as opposed to the current pace of a quarter-mile every year (a difference of $625,000).

Park Board commissioners will decide January 20 whether to accept Miller's referendum. Minneapolis Public Schools will be competing for taxpayers' empathy this November, as it asks for a renewal on property tax hikes for schools.