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Metro, rural officials squabble over Legacy money for parks

Metro-area officials claim their parks aren’t getting a fair share of funding.

The metro parks, which include Como Park, above, claim to have had 44 million visitors in 2011 and the state park system 9 million.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date

That Minnesotans voted to impose on themselves an extra sales tax to benefit clean water, the environment and the arts is something of a miracle. That we did it in 2008, when the economy was tipping into recession, is beyond incredible. The Legacy amendment, which enshrined the add-on tax in the state constitution for 25 years, is a manifestation of the public’s desire to preserve and protect stuff that benefits everybody.

Less stirring, however, are the squabbles over who gets how much.

Broadly, 0.375 percent tax generates about $300 million a year. One third of the money goes to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, whose purpose is to protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat. Another third is devoted to clean water and $60 million to arts and cultural heritage.

The last piece, about $40 million, is a fund committed to parks and trails of statewide or regional importance. Since the Legacy amendment passed, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Metropolitan Council and a group representing Greater Minnesota have been jousting in the Legislature to get their cut.

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Lawmakers, fed up with the contentious infighting, in 2011 created the Parks and Trails Legacy Funding Committee to make spending recommendations. This fall, after six meetings, it came out with a plan that will presumably become part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget, which will be presented this coming Tuesday.

Already, however, a yelp of outrage has come from John Erwin, president of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. In a memo to the governor, Met Council members, legislators and a swarm of other officials, he asserted, “the seven-county metropolitan area has not received a fair allocation of these funds.”

More visitors to metro parks

His cri de coeur echoes those previously expressed by other park boards. Last year, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and Anoka and Carver counties, among others, passed a resolution asserting that the metro deserved more money because its parks host four times more visitors than those in greater Minnesota.

Nine appointees to the Funding Committee represented the DNR, the Met Council and the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Coalition, a non-profit group whose membership consists of about 90 rural cities, counties and townships. It sprang into existence in 2010 to make sure that rural towns and counties got their piece of the Legacy action.

The Funding Committee’s overall recommendation? It allocated 40 percent of the money to Metro Regional Parks, 40 percent to DNR state parks and 20 percent to rural regional parks. On the surface, that sounds reasonable. But the reasoning behind it doesn’t seem very rigorous.

Based on nothing more than a rough guess, the committee decided that parks (and trails) divide 80-20 proportionally between “near-home recreation opportunities” and “tourism destinations.” The near-home sites lie, by definition, within 30 minutes of their visitors’ residences. All of the tourism dollars or $8 million will go to the DNR. The rest of the money is to be split evenly between the seven-county metro and greater Minnesota, giving each $16 million. Of that, the Metropolitan Regional Parks System and the Greater Minnesota Coalition each get 40 percent or $6.4 million. The remaining 20 percent or $3.2 million will go to the DNR, because, of course, state parks receive near-home visitors too.

This is somewhat of a reversal of fortune for the metro. In the first two-year round of funding, it received about half the $40 million pot — 43 percent in a straight allocation plus about 7 percent in grants and money for DNR-operated parks. “We felt that this was a fair and equitable distribution, considering that 54 percent of the population of Minnesota resides within the seven-county metropolitan area, 64 percent of the state sales tax that funds the Legacy amendment is collected from the metropolitan area and the metro area is expected to grow by 1,000,000 people in the next twenty years,” wrote Erwin in his memo. 

In the last biennium, however, rural parks lobbyists upped their game. The Coalition got organized and asked for a full third of the $40 million pot. After a rumble between the city mice and the outstate mice, the Republican-dominated Legislature increased the rural parks’ share to 20 percent, which, claims Erwin, cost the metro area an estimated $6.4 million for the two-year period or $64 million over the remaining life of the amendment, $100 million if you consider inflation. (Of course, you’d also have to figure that inflation over the next 20 years or so would also increase the size of the entire kitty.)

Money for marketing

The Funding Committee seems to have rather indolently gone along with the Legislature’s decision that 20 percent go to rural Minnesota parks — and recommended that the formula stay in place for six years. Before the money is portioned out, the committee designated that $100,000 be devoted to help the three systems coordinate their marketing, data and websites.

Problem is, only two of the three partners are really systems. The Greater Minnesota Coalition is simply a batch of local governments independently operating 128 parks and 35 trails which they say are of “regional significance.” Whether they are or not is hard to say because the Coalition claims that it doesn’t know how much is spent on its parks and trails, how many trail acres they have or how many visitors come each year. So the Funding Committee granted the Coalition another $100,000 each year for the next six years to support data gathering.

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That seems like an overly generous amount of time to develop such information. But Charles Wocken, Stearns County park director, Coalition member and adviser to the Funding Committee, responds, “It is not an overly generous budget.”

Dan Larson, the Coalition’s lobbyist, points out that previously the Greater Minnesota parks had no reason to gather such data and plan. The passage of the Legacy amendment and the availability of funds changed all that. He adds that the Coalition aims to build a system that rivals the metro parks, but “we’re going from zero to 60. It took Minneapolis over 100 years to develop theirs.”

Weaving a disparate batch of parks and trails located all over the state into some kind of system, however, seems illogical. Little seems to connect them but their desire for Legacy money. And, without data, it’s hard to accept that the 128 parks the Coalition commandeers are of “regional significance.” By DNR criteria, regional parks must be at least 100 acres in size, attract visitors beyond the local area and have distinct natural or recreational features. Moreover, adding the rural 128 parks to 72 state parks would make 80 percent of all parks eligible for Legacy funding outside the seven-county metro. 

“The biggest need for parks is where people are,” says Brian Rice, attorney and one-time lobbyist for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. That was the thrust of $600,000 University of Minnesota report the parks system commissioned by the Legislature and issued in 2011. It emphasized enhancing and creating park assets in the metro where population is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next 23 years and the central area, a crescent of counties (particularly Wright, Stearns and Isanti) to the northwest of the Twin Cities, with a projected 74 percent population growth. In contrast, the northeast or arrowhead portion of the state “is characterized by a dispersed population with below-average population growth and above-average numbers of people age 65 and older.” Erwin says that the Funding Committee did not “properly” consider the reports when deciding on the allocations.

How many visitors rural parks in fact draw is an open question. The metro parks claim to have had 44 million visitors in 2011 and the state park system 9 million.  Rice says that an old report fixed the number at 1.2 million. When the Funding Committee visited a Wright County park, says Rice, who attended all their meetings, “the only cars in the parking lot were ours.”

Erwin concludes his memo with this: “Simply acceding to the efforts of a working group which had very little metropolitan representation would be a disservice to our residents and taxpayers.”

Wocken says that the Funding Committee has decided not to comment on the letter, but added, “It’s a sad attempt to impact the process.”

We’ll start to find out whether or not it does when the governor issues his budget next week.