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Minneapolis park board’s budget shifts means more money to youth programming, less for park police

Some commissioners say the budget ignores previously-established priorities for the system, and does not give enough attention to goals such as protecting the environment, achieving financial sustainability and engaging more residents.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board
Large chunks of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s roughly $126 million budget were still being debated by commissioners at the eleventh hour.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

While the Minneapolis City Council approved a $1.6 billion 2020 budget with few significant deviations from Mayor Jacob Frey’s original proposal Wednesday night, the same cannot be said about the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s plan for spending in the coming year.

Unlike the budget for city departments, large chunks of MPRB’s roughly $126 million budget were still being debated by commissioners at the eleventh hour. From discussions about staffing to neighborhood-by-neighborhood needs, the commissioners used Wednesday evening to take issue with significant portions of the system’s spending.

Some MPRB members criticized the last-minute budget tinkering, while others on the 9-member board praised the goal behind many of the changes: to shift additional costs away from families and grow opportunities for children and teens.

The changes, some of which board members approved last week, shifted around hundreds of thousands of dollars in Superintendent Alfred Bangoura’s 2020 spending plan in light of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)’s decision in September to cap the system’s property tax levy increase at 5.7 percent rather than at the level the board requested, 8 percent. 

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This summer, Bangoura and the board laid out ways for expanding youth programs and mitigating the system’s carbon footprint using additional revenue from an 8 percent levy hike. To adjust to for the lower levy, Bangoura introduced an official 2020 budget proposal in October that scaled back many of his earlier ideas.

Instead of four new tech labs with computers and art supplies in parks, the revised recommendations set aside funding for two. The October proposal also increased a variety of customer fees, including those for Rec Plus, which provides childcare for school-aged children before and after school; for renting out spaces at recreation centers and athletic fields; and for reserving Wirth Pavilion on Glenwood Avenue. 

But after a series of public hearings and meetings in November, MPRB President Brad Bourn and Commissioner Londel French proposed a package of amendments at a committee meeting last week.

Among the changes to Bangoura’s plan: another tech lab; a free daycare pilot program in North Minneapolis; the doubling in size of a teen jobs program; and the elimination of the idea to raise fees for Rec Plus or for renting out athletic fields or Wirth Pavilion.

To pay for those proposals, the MPRB agreed to raise rates for wedding, parkway and construction permits and licenses for off-leash dog parks, as well as convert some free parking spots in North Loop and downtown areas to paid parking. The amendment package also reduced proposed spending on park police and the system’s cadet program, among other staffing changes across the parks system.

Additionally, the board removed free after-school programming at four sites and increased fees for parking, events and adult recreation programs by 5 percent. “It’s putting the burden, not on families with kids, but more on adults,” French said of the changes.

Pushback over process 

Not all commissioners agreed with the changes. At the Dec. 4 meeting where the majority of changes were approved, Commissioner Meg Forney said the amendments offset previously-established priorities of the system, giving too much focus on youth programming and not enough attention on other goals to protect the environment, achieve financial sustainability and engage more residents.

“We’re setting everybody up for failure by this imbalance this is a huge system that is multifaceted and it is not purely absolutely about youth,” she said.

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Forney and others also criticized the denial of requests from parks police — and some community members — to grow the system’s law-enforcement unit. “If you feel your number one priority is youth, why would you then provide them parks that are unsafe?” she asked the board. 

Commissioner Steffanie Musich opposed the new amendment package, too. She raised issue with the fact that commissioners were discussing the changes at the last minute, and that that rushed nature of policy-making goes against the board’s commitment to use data to support its investments.

“A lot of these amendments … read like political favoritism; It’s not really the way I want to see government happening,” she told her colleagues at the Dec. 4 meeting. “I’m just baffled that this is how we’re choosing to do business now.”

Supporters including commissioners Bourn, French, Jono Cowgill, Chris Meyer and AK Hassan said the changes reflect the board’s commitment to helping youth thrive despite budget constraints and systemwide demands.

Last-minute changes

Commissioners took advantage of Wednesday night’s meeting to make other last minute amendments. Before taking a final vote, Commissioner Chris Meyer proposed a change to how the system funds an arborist position and Tree Preservation Coordinator, for example. 

Then, Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw proposed revising budget lines that set aside one-time boosts in funding for Somali youth in the city’s Cedar Riverside neighborhood, advocating the money instead go toward people of color and underserved communities citywide.

Hassan, who represents the Cedar Riverside on the board, spoke against the change, saying the parks system has systematically ignored the neighborhood with new investments. He also called attention to the fact that unlike most MPRB meetings, Wednesday’s budget session wasn’t being televised.

“This is not the time to amend the budget we approved last week,” Hassan said. “Now, at the last minute, you want to shut out the Somali community because they’re not here to raise their case; I’m very offended by that.”

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As a compromise, Bourn attempted to shift around $50,000 from parking fees, which exist in the system’s enterprise fund, to maintain the one-time boosts for the Somali community and implement new investments for other communities of color. 

Forney and Musich opposed dipping into the enterprise fund, which they described as key for fixing issues at golf courses and parks, including the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

In the end, Vetaw’s original amendment to change the language to pertain to all communities of color, as well as underserved areas of Minneapolis, passed. But a proposed amendment by Forney to scale back plans for the tech labs at parks failed. The board eventually approved the 2020 budget on a 5-3 vote.